November 22, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

CO Library Pilots a Robotics Program that Helps Kids with Autism

Robauto design.

The BiblioBot design from the Longmont Library Innovation Team. Images courtesy of Robauto.

For months, 12-year-old Deacon Kaufman has spent his Sunday afternoons at the TinkerMill maker space in Longmont, CO, where the Longmont Library Innovation Team, made up of Deacon and nine other kids in grades 7−12, work on building BiblioBot, a library robot prototype geared to serve children with autism. The Innovation Team is a low-cost robotics program that is a partnership between the Longmont (CO) Public Library (LPL) and Robauto, a Boulder-based robotics company. Many of the children on the Innovation Team, including Deacon, have Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

Ideally, BiblioBot will be able to talk, tell jokes, and use a scanner to locate misplaced books while it moves down rows of book stacks. Moreover, the robot will also be able to connect with the library’s Apple TVs to that users can view video feed from the robot’s perspective.

“There’s something unique about the robot that, across the board, seems to create this willingness to engage and talk,” says Jalali Hartman, the CEO of Robauto. Hartman says that the robot is helpful to children with ASD because the machine is a comfortable intermediary for kids who are uncomfortable with the nuances of social interactions.

Robauto CEO and founder Jalili Hartman. Photo courtesy of Jalili Hartman.

Robauto CEO and founder Jalali Hartman.

The seed of this initiative, which won the 2014 Library Program of the Year from the Colorado Association of Libraries and the 2014 Intellectual Property Champion Award from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, began with Hartman’s robotics savvy and desire to work with Boulder County families impacted by ASD. He initially reached out to the Autism Society of Colorado and the Autism Society of Boulder County and was introduced to the staff at LPL in April 2014.

Elektra Greer, director of LPL’s Children’s and Teen Department, along with Katherine Weadley, librarian and lead facilitator for LPL’s ASD programming, worked with Hartman to select the inaugural 2014 team for building BiblioBot.

“Knowing that autism is the fastest growing developmental disability,” Greer says, “[which] we were witnessing…in the library every day, especially in our Children’s and Teen Department, impelled us to make our ASD work more intentional.”

To create BiblioBot’s function and design, Hartman surveyed 500 parents, teachers, and students in the Longmont community. Following the feedback, the kids on the project sat down with an industrial designer and explained the project, function parameters, and the design constraints. The result is a model with a rectangular head with two large eyes perched atop a vase-shaped body covered with a multi-colored fabric.

Deacon Kaufman's sketches of BiblioBot.

Deacon Kaufman’s sketches of BiblioBot.

Deacon explains that his job is to “draw all of the sketches and make sure the robot matches [them].” The Flagstaff Academy seventh-grader helped design the machine and create the voice. When asked what he’s learned, however, his response isn’t about engineering.

“I have learned to cooperate with others,” he says.

His mother, Marie, noticed the program’s positive effect on her son, telling SLJ, “It has been exciting for him to be a part of the team.”

Other kids on the spectrum have benefited from the robotics project as well, says Hartman, although at times it wasn’t obvious.

“[The kids] seem like they’re not paying attention,” he explains. “

One kid reads his book the whole time, but I gave him this box of parts, and he built a sensor. Another kid had never seen Linux before, and a week later, he’s streaming video perfectly.”

The prototype is expected to be available in 2015 for the cost of $975, following successful beta testing in three Longmont branches. (It is available for pre-ordering on the Robauto indiegogo campaign website.) The next round of this ASD-inclusive program begins this February. Anyone in the Longmont area wishing to participate may register here.

The program directly serves LPL’s initiative to expand its outreach to underserved populations and received grants from the Library Services and Technology Act through the Institute of Museum and Library Services, the CAN’d Aid Foundation, and the Friends of the Longmont Library.

The staff at Longmont has been doing outreach and presented the BiblioBot program at professional gatherings for those interested in replicating the program, shares Weadley.

According to the Robauto website, it costs $198 to purchase the Robot Inventor Kit, both software and hardware, plus training for an Innovation Team member. Currently, the Longmont Library robotics program has a crowdfunding campaign on indiegogo to raise $4,500. The fundraiser’s deadline is January 27.

Greer says, “For us librarians, [the Innovation Team program] forced us to really think about what are our core services, and how do we best feel a [robot] can help us with these [services]. Unquestionably, this has been some of the most gratifying work I’ve done.”

For libraries interested in replicating the program, visit http://www.robauto.co, or email Jalali Hartman at jhartman@robauto.co.


Carly Okyle is a freelance journalist who has written for FamilyCircle.com, YourTango.com, and Guideposts magazine. Her blog “The D Card” is candid look at living with disability issues.

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