Students develop robotic arm that can translate speech into sign language

A team of engineering students from the University of Antwerp are building a robot capable of translating human speech into sign language.

The amazing project is sponsored by the European Institute for Otorhinolaryngology and one of its objectives is to develop machines that can cover the shortage of sign language interpreters across the world.

The initiative, called the Project ASLAN (Antwerp’s Sign Language Actuating Node), combines 3D printing with cheap, readily available electronic components.

The team is using the popular international printing site 3D Hubs to make the ASLAN robot replicable in over 140 countries.

Master’s students Guy Fierens, Stijn Huys and Jasper Slaets joined forces back in 2014 to try and come up with a technological solution to the exacerbating shortage of sign language interpreters.

“I was talking to friends about the shortage of sign language interpreters in Belgium, especially in Flanders for the Flemish sign language,” Fierens says.

“We wanted to do something about it. I also wanted to work on robotics for my master’s, so we combined the two.”

Three years later, the project has a prototype. Their first iteration is able to spell, count and can convert text into sign language.

Think of 3D Hubs as an Uber-type service that connects users with a printer close to a user’s location. Partnering with them gives the ASLAN team an affordable and highly scalable manufacturing solution. Using 3D printing also allows the Antwerp based team to easily replace and update parts.

The robot, which takes around 10 hours to assemble, operates by receiving information from a local network and comparing the input to a database of sign languages from all over the globe.

The objective of Project ASLAN is to serve as a sign language interpreter when human translators are not available. The finalised humanoid robot can be used in a myriad of applications, from supporting a deaf person in court to training aspiring interpreters.

Robotics teacher Erwin Smet from the University of Antwerp explains, “A deaf person who needs to appear in court, a deaf person following a lesson in a classroom somewhere, these are all circumstances where a deaf person needs a sign language interpreter, but where often such an interpreter is not readily available.”

“This is where a low-cost option, like ASLAN can offer a solution.”