Robots assist with elder care

Baby boomers are set to retire, and robots are ready to help, providing elder care and improving the quality of life for those in need. Professor Rod Grupen and his colleagues have developed a robotic assistant that is being integrated into a system called ASSIST that can dial 911 in case of emergencies, detect and respond to falls, remind clients to take their medication, help with grocery shopping and allow a client to talk to loved ones and health care providers.

Concerned family members can access the unit and visit their elderly parents from any Internet connection. The unit may also be remotely navigated around the home to look for Mom or Dad, who may not hear the ringing phone or may be in need of assistance. Doctors can perform virtual house calls, reducing the need for travel.

“For the first time, robots are safe enough and inexpensive enough to do meaningful work in a residential environment,” says Professor Rod Grupen, director of the Laboratory for Perceptual Robotics, who developed project ASSIST with Professor Allen Hanson, the late Professor Emeritus Edward Riseman, and colleagues Dr. Phebe Sessions and Dr. David Burton in the Smith School for Social Work. Through focus groups, the researchers learned about the preferences of potential users and their expectations and fears of technology.  This information was used to design ASSIST.

The robot, called the uBot-5, could allow elders to live independently, and provide relief for caregivers, the medical system and community services, which are expected to be severely stressed by the retirement of over 77 million Americans in the next 30 years.

The uBot-5 design was inspired by a human’s anatomy. An array of sensors acts as the robots eyes and ears, allowing it to recognize human activities, such as walking or sitting. It can also recognize an abnormal visual event, such as a fall, and notify a remote medical caregiver. Through an interface, the remote service provider may ask the client to speak, smile or raise both arms, movements that the robot can demonstrate. If the person is unresponsive, the robot can call 911, alert family and apply a digital stethoscope to a patient, conveying information to an emergency medical technician who is en route.

The system also tracks obstructions. If a delivery person leaves a package in a hallway, a sensor array on uBot-5 is trained to notice when a path is blocked, and the robot can move the obstruction out of the way. It can also raise its outstretched arms, carry a load of up to 10 pounds and has the potential to perform household tasks that require a fair amount of dexterity including cleaning, fetching objects, taking out the trash, or helping in the yard.

The uBot-5 carries a Web cam, a microphone, and an LCD display that acts as an interface that can be used to communicate with the outside world. “Grandma can take the robot’s hand, lead it out into the garden and have a virtual visit with a grandchild who is living on the opposite coast,” says Grupen, who notes that isolation can lead to depression in the elderly.

Graduate students Patrick Deegan, Emily Horrell, Shichao Ou, Sharaj Sen, Brian Thibodeau, Adam Williams and Dan Xie are also collaborators on project ASSIST.