Apr. 21, 2008 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. Researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst have developed a robotic assistant that can dial 911 in case of emergencies, 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, including navigating around the home and looking 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 computer scientist Rod Grupen, director of UMass Amherst’s Laboratory for Perceptual Robotics, who developed project ASSIST with computer scientists Allen Hanson and Edward Riseman.
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.
There is no mistaking the uBot-5 for a person, but its design was inspired by human 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 what isn’t human. If a delivery person leaves a package in a hallway, the sensor array 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 about 2.2 pounds and has the potential to perform household tasks that require a fair amount of dexterity, including cleaning and grocery shopping.
The uBOT-5 carries a Web cam, a microphone, and a touch-sensitive LCD display that acts as an interface for communication 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.
Grupen studied developmental neurology in his quest to create a robot that could do a variety of tasks in different environments. The uBot-5’s arm motors are analogous to the muscles and joints in our own arms, and it can push itself up to a vertical position if it falls over. It has a “spinal cord” and the equivalent of an inner ear to keep it balanced on its Segway-like wheels.
The researchers wanted to create a personal robot that could provide many services, such as a medical alert system, or the means to talk to loved ones, all in one human-like package, according to Grupen. To evaluate the effectiveness of potential technologies, the research team worked with social workers, members of the medical community and family members of those in elder care.
The collaborative effort, dubbed project ASSIST, involved researchers from the Smith College School for Social Work, the Veteran’s Administration (Connecticut Health Care System, West Haven campus) and elder care community centers in western Massachusetts. Through focus groups, the researchers learned about the preferences of potential users.
Graduate students Patrick Deegan, Emily Horrell, Shichao Ou, Sharaj Sen, Brian Thibodeau, Adam Williams and Dan Xie are also collaborators on project ASSIST.
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