Robot helps Wisconsin girl take first steps

Posted: 2:48 PM, Nov 21, 2017
Updated: 2018-12-12 13:20:57-05

A local 3-year-old and her robot take their first steps, together. We were there to see the invention of some very dedicated high school students, in action.  The I-Team has been following this story for more than a year, about a little girl who continues to defy medical odds.

These teenagers turned their biggest challenge as a robotics team into something that will change the life of this little girl from Menomonee Falls.  We first met Vivian Johnson and her family through an I-Team investigation. That, turned into a new story about a little girl who wants to do what every other 3-year-old can, and the high school students helping her achieve that.

"She is just go, go, go all the time. We can't keep her still," Vivian's mom, Sarah, shared.  But before now Vivian couldn't just stand up and go like most other kids her age.   "Right now she's got five feet to work with," Sarah said.  Vivian is attached to 50 pounds of medical equipment, equipment she needs to live.

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Doctors never expected Vivian to walk. When she took her first steps Sarah had a big problem. "I think if anything is holding her back it's us," she explained. "We're not able to let her go wherever she wants to go." When Vivian walks Sarah becomes a pack horse. Lugging all the equipment while also trying to guide Vivian's walker.  "We honestly don't carry it around the house very much.  It's hard. It gets tangled, and she's faster than I am," Sarah told us.

"Right now she's got five feet to work with." --Sarah Johnson, Vivian's mother

But Vivian's new companion is programmed to keep up. A robot that will follow her everywhere she goes. "It's just insane; I never actually thought we'd be to this point," Colton Feirer said. He's one of the St. Francis High School students who designed, built and programmed the robot.

Team member Georgia Hancock added,"this is really what is going to change the world and what makes robotics so important." The SFRobotics team has been working on this project for more than a year.  And we've followed them through the process, one that hasn't been easy. "Starting out we had no idea what we were even doing," Feirer admitted.

And now their biggest challenge is about to be put to the test. Vivian didn't waste any time taking off. As she cruised around the house, the team took notes. "It seems like the robot is acting kind of weird when it's on carpet," Alex Reid noted. They're keeping a running list of what to tweak and will also work on a small design change to make loading Vivian's equipment easier.

"I know that she's different, but I want her to be able to feel like everyone else. And go wherever she wants to go without being limited" -- Sarah Johnson

Although not perfect, the students were happy with how their robot performed. "I think for a first run, like first time in the house moving around it's done quite well," Reid offered.

It's something these high school students have worked so hard to give Vivian. And in return she's given them a life changing assignment.


With the robot following behind, this was the furthest Vivian has walked in her own house. That means discovering new things like the pots and pans cabinet! "I know that she's different, but I want her to be able to feel like everyone else. And go wherever she wants to go without being limited," Sarah explained.  

The students drove the robot at Vivian's house with a controller. The goal is to have it work independently, meaning sensors will help the robot avoid obstacles, keep up with Vivian and know where she's going.  

This project has been a community effort. Most of the materials and electronics were donated by local, and some out of state, companies. The students also worked a MSOE mentor and consulted with biomedical engineers from the VA.