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Silver Linings: Next generation of senior care could be robotic

New Hampshire Union Leader

March 11. 2017 7:14PM
French company Yumii has been working on a care-bot for seniors called Cutii which keeps them in touch with others through voice commands. It can perform video calls and act as a scheduler. (COURTESY)

Joan Morgan of Manchester was shopping at Best Buy and stopped to take a look at a $375 robot vacuum. While the 77-year-old liked the idea of having an appliance to do the vacuuming for her, she said the price was a "little luxurious for my lifestyle."

But asked if she would shell out a little more for robot that could keep her company, fetch the remote, and take her temperature, she laughed.

"That'll be the day," she said. "I'll believe it when I see it."

Dartmouth College graduate and roboticist Dan Popa said Morgan won't have to wait more than five to 10 years to see these types of "care-bots" in hospital settings - and in the home not long after. Such robot caregivers have been talked about since Rosie the Robot was serving the Jetsons on TV in the 1960s, but Popa said reality is now catching up with imagination to help the world's aging population.

"Eventually, we're going to think of a robot as an appliance like a washer or dryer that we'll go to Sears and buy it for the home or for Mom and Dad," he said.

Popa is a professor at the University of Kentucky at Louisville and runs Next Gen Systems, a robotics research group. He's received over $1.8 million in federal grant money over the last two years to research and develop robotic nursing assistants. He describes them as helpers, not as replacements for nurses.

One of his projects is what he calls a "patient sitter" - a robot that sits with a patient, can converse with the patient, fetch things like the remote control, and take blood pressure and body temperature. It can also serve as a tattletale that alerts a nurse when a patient is doing something they shouldn't be, like getting out of bed.

His other project is a robotic walker to get patients up and ambulatory, a task he says nurses don't always have enough time to do.

He said in the future these could be used at home. He said hospitals provide an easier environment - no stairs or rugs or coffee tables in the way. He said the cost of these robots also makes them cost prohibitive - at least for now. He said there is a robot that can fetch things for seniors - if they want to shell out $80,000.

"Robots can do some things, but if you try to replace people, it's very expensive," he said.

And there seems to be a market, even if there isn't a product. In 2015, Blue Frog Robotics in Boston used crowd funding to presell over 1,300 robots called Buddy for between $699 and $999 each with delivery promised at the end of 2016. It was billed as a companion to seniors that could detect falls, among other things. According to the crowd-funding site Indiegogo, people are still waiting and are demanding refunds. Officials at Blue Frog did not respond for comment.

The development of "care-bots" is going on around the world. Japan, much as New Hampshire, has a burgeoning senior set and is at the forefront of robotic technology to help elders live independently. There, 20 percent of the population is estimated to be over the age of 65. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 16.5 percent of New Hampshire's population was 65 or older as of 2015.

Japanese company Riken has developed a robot called Robear that aims to help nurses by lifting patients from a seat to their feet or from their hospital bed, which Popa said is a "common problem for nurses." He said Robear is not quite ready to be used on real patients because of safety issues. He gave an example of an obese patient and how big Robear would have to be to lift the person.

"Safety is really important because we're dealing with people who are frail and sick to begin with. It becomes a liability," he said.

Popa is not the only roboticist working on robots that work as patient sitters. There are many initiatives going on in Europe, including the ENRICHME movement, which aims to have robots alongside humans providing care to seniors in assisted living facilities. A French company called Yumii has developed Cutii, which is being tested in several homes. The firm aims to deliver 500 to the marketplace by the end of 2017.

The company bills these robots as a way to combat isolation, which has been shown to increase mortality. Cutii allows seniors to interact with people through mobile and web-based platforms - making video calls, for instance - while also helping a patient schedule fitness classes and other enrichment activities.

Popa said the future of robotics is burgeoning and has only one end.

"What we are trying to do is re-create ourselves," he said. "There's no shortage of research in our area and if we get to the end, we're re-creating ourselves."

Coming soon – the Care-bots:

In 2011, the White House launched the National Robotics Initiative to provide up to $70 million in federal money for the research and development of robots to work with or beside people. Here is a look at some university programs receiving money to develop robots to work with seniors:

• University of Pennsylvania ($799,860) to develop a low-cost “mobile manipulator” that can help seniors with such as tasks as picking up dropped items or filling a water glass.

• University of Wisconsin-Stout ($39,339) to acquire a state-of-the art robot for research in assistive and rehabilitation robotics to improve quality of life for the elderly and disabled.

• Oklahoma State University ($725,000) to develop a new type of social intelligence for robot companions in assisted living environments.

• University of Massachusetts at Lowell and Northeastern University ($1,369,585) to research how to make robot grasping more “robust.” A person who is elderly or disabled will use a robot arm mounted on an electric wheelchair or scooter. Improved grasping capability enhances picking up objects.

• University of Southern California ($250,000) to develop and evaluate robots as a team member to aid in the “achievement of team/family goals” in elder care.

Source: The National Science Foundation

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