Thirteen-year-old Abby Fisher sits in the light-filled kitchen of her Vassalboro home on a chilly April day getting ready for school.
She opens her laptop and sets a small speaker on the table.
At the same time, about a mile away, the students in Abby’s seventh-grade science class at Vassalboro Community School are settling in at their desks.
A live video feed from the classroom pops up on Abby’s laptop. Her classmates can see her in real time, too – thanks to a robot nicknamed “Double.”
Abby’s mother has another name for the high-tech device.
“It’s a lifesaver,” Jennifer Fisher says.
Double is an iPad mounted on wheels that Abby is able to remotely control over Wi-Fi. Think Skype on a Segway.
“It acts as your double,” says Sara Broyles, communications manager at the California-based Double Robotics Inc., the company that created the “telepresence” robot that Abby uses. “It gives you a physical presence where you can’t be in person.”
Since 2012, Double Robotics – one of a handful of companies that manufacture telepresence robots – has sold 5,000 of them worldwide. Eighty percent are used by telecommuters. The robots are also used in schools and in medical settings, sometimes by doctors making “virtual” visits to hospitalized patients.
Double is the reason Abby is able to go back to school from her kitchen table.
She was diagnosed with Lyme disease last year and missed much of this school year and last because of countless bouts of crippling fatigue, severe headache and other Lyme-related health problems.
“I was tired a lot,” Abby says, brushing her long red hair off her shoulder, “and I had a lot of bad stomach pain and sometimes I would be nauseous. Foot pain and dizzy a lot.”
Her mother is all too familiar with those symptoms. She, too, has Lyme disease – which went undiagnosed for more than a decade.
“I would literally get home from work and crawl up the stairs and get in bed until the next day. It was horrible,” Jennifer Fisher says.
Both are slowly improving with treatment, but Abby still has more bad days than good.
“It’s hard,” she says. “I wasn’t able to see my friends. And I got kind of behind.”
This winter, school nurse MaryAnn Fortin and computer teacher David Trask began talking about ways to help Abby reconnect.
“I went to David one day and said, ‘What can we do to get this kiddo in class?’ ” Fortin says. She wondered about using Skype or FaceTime. But Trask had another idea.
“David kiddingly said, ‘Well, they do have these double robots,’ ” Fortin says. “I said, ‘Show me.’ So we looked at it (online), and I said, ‘We can do this,’ and he goes, ‘Yeah, we can do this.’ ”
Thanks to a grant from the Perloff Family Fund of the Maine Community Foundation that covered the cost, they did.
“I think it was a couple of weeks later they had the robot. It was amazing,” Jennifer Fisher says. “(The school) was wonderful. They say it takes a village, and I wouldn’t want to be part of any other village.”
The Double – which costs about $3,000 (the iPad is sold separately) – arrived at the school on March 11.
Abby “drives” the 14-pound robot using the directional keys on her laptop. It’s fitted with a gravitational stabilizer so that, even if someone bumps into it, it will usually right itself. The camera on the robot allows her to see where she’s going. She can wheel down hallways, into the elevator, or just park it and hang out with her friends.
“During breaks sometimes I can go out in the hall so I can talk with them. They usually crowd around me,” Abby says with a shy smile.
“It allows (the homebound student) to be part of the school community,” Trask says. “You know, simply sending work home or conversing over email, for a kid especially, it’s not the same.”
When it’s not being used, Double is parked in a docking station in the computer classroom where the battery is recharged.
While the younger kids in the school of 440 students are still entranced by the robot, the novelty seems to have worn off for many of Abby’s peers.
As Double rolls down a second floor hallway, one student turns and says, nonchalantly, “Hey, Abby, going to science?” Others simply wave hello as they hurry by and Abby – on the iPad –waves back.
While Abby is the first to use Double at Vassalboro Community School, she won’t be the last. Principal Dianna Gram is already thinking about others who might benefit.
“It’s a great feeling (to have the robot available),” Gram says. “We shouldn’t let the barriers of not being able to walk in the door get in the way of someone’s education.”