Robbie The Robot Will Be Hands And Legs For Limbless Woman

“As a child and even today, I’ve always wanted and would love to have a robot. This robot will become my hands and legs.”

Joanne O’Riordan was born with a rare condition called Tetra-amelia syndrome, and as a result, she doesn’t have any arms or legs. In the spring of 2012, the 18-year-old spoke at the United Nations telecommunications conference, challenging developers to build a robot that could make her life easier. “As a child and even today, I’ve always wanted and would love to have a robot,” O’Riordan said. “This robot will become my hands and legs.”


On Friday, she finally met her helper: Robbie the Robot, a 5-foot-seven, 88-pound robot.

With a €50,000 donation from the UN’s International Telecommunication Union, a team of student engineers at Trinity College Dublin, led by associate professor Kevin Kelly, developed the humanoid robot prototype. Robbie has a head, torso, arms, and legs. The robot’s arms use a balloon to conform around an object’s shape and creates a vacuum to pick up the item. The head, displayed on a screen, will regularly blink to convey that everything is working properly. “We tried to design it in a way that it will engage positively with people,” said Conor McGinn, the project’s chief engineer. “We wanted to incorporate quite a high level of realism so that when Joanne is interacting with it, it will be quite similar to when she’s interacting with people.” Robbie the Robot is capable of smiling or frowning, the latter of which happens when it is shocked by something unexpected.

“I want to live an independent life just like you,” said O’Riordan, back at the UN conference. “I don’t want to live in the shadows of others because I want to make my own journey in life. I know if I’m given the chance, I can and will succeed.”

About the author

Based in San Francisco, Alice Truong is Fast Company's West Coast correspondent. She previously reported in Chicago, Washington D.C., New York and most recently Hong Kong, where she (left her heart and) worked as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal.