Editorial Feature

Robots Lend a Helping Hand to Elderly Care Services

The aging population is on the rise! With novel medicines and continuous efforts to improve ways on how to combat age-related diseases such as Dementia and Alzheimer’s, we are starting to see an increase in the number of elderly people in need of a caregiver.

Based on statistics by the World Health Organisation, between the period of 2000 and 2050, the global population over the age of 60 years will double from 11% to a weathered 22%. When considering the amount of people living on Earth, a 22% rise in an aging population is the equivalent of 2 billion people by the end of 2050.

There is a struggle and a great deal pressure on the healthcare services across the globe to tackle the issue of elderly care. Obviously, the functional capacity of how well the human body does age is a big contributor to a climb in the aging population.

Older people find it increasingly difficult to look after themselves, particularly in developing countries and have problems being able to maintain mobility and manage mental health problems. Then there is also the issue of healthcare costs – elderly people living in low- and middle-income families are and will struggle to afford adequate care.

So Why Have Robots Become Important in Providing Care?

In a world where there is pressure to reduce healthcare costs and maximise services, the chances of receiving a caregiver for each elderly individual starts to become waiting game. This is quite a depressing fate for us all let’s face it.

However, one thing that does stand out in today’s healthcare services is the integration of modern technology to assist in patient care. For example, I recently dedicated an article titled: ‘Telepresence Robot to Deliver Patient Care’ on the application of the RP-VITA Robot designed by InTouch Health which is a robot used to deliver healthcare advice by virtually connecting a physician, nurse or clinician to a patient from a remote location.

The idea of robotic technology to replace human caregivers has been taken from concept to completion in some parts of the world such as Japan where the life expectancy is already among one of the highest globally.

Nursebots

The Nursbot, is a project created by researchers at the Waseda University in Tokyo. The robot is referred to as ‘Twendy-One’ and can be used to clean floors, assist in carrying an elderly patient, and believe it or not can stretch its functional capabilities as far as preparing food for the patient and serving it to them. In the following video, Waseda University’s Lab deliver a demonstration of Twendy-One in action.

Design and Appearance of Twendy-One

Twendy-One is designed with arms and hands with an aim to make this robot resemble the structure of a human body, which will help welcome communication between the robot and the elder patient. The overall structure to this robot is equivalent to that of an adult female. With seven degrees of freedom to the arm structure and thirteen degrees of freedom to the four-finger-hand, Twendy-One is capable of being able to manipulate objects manually with a high degree of precision and flexibility.

There is a growing pressure for researchers to build humanoids that are as tactile as possible so that human–robot interaction does not feel alienated. Twendy-One’s fingertips are made of a soft tactile material and are designed to mimic the curvature of a human hand. With six-axis force sensors installed into the robot’s hand, any physical contact the robot may make (i.e., hold a human hand) is immediately conveyed via an electrical pathway to the controller. The following video shows Twendy-One assisting a human out of bed and into a chair, demonstrating the plausibility of a robot providing care for the elderly.

Twendy-One can also adapt to a physical pressure applied by humans, which will encourage a learning behaviour to help enhance communication between the robot and human. There is always the question of how human-friendly a dexterous robot actually is to achieve the end goal of increasing interaction with a human being. Researchers at Waseda University addressed the objective of a human-friendly robot by creating an outer shell to the robot that encapsulates all the electronics keeping this network out of sight to the human eye – the emphasis here to make the robot as tactile as possible.

The Twendy-One robot is designed to have a passive impedance adjustment to allow the robot to adapt to unfamiliar environments. When it comes to being able to adjust movement and task capabilities in response to human emotion, this robot is capable of exactly this without applying any force to the human body. In case you’re wondering how this robot detects stimuli from the human in order to interact and manipulate its function, this robot is built with an array of force sensors so that the machine can realise when coming into physical contact with a human being or an inanimate object.

Manual handling by the robot is possible through actuators installed into the joints of the robot’s arms, which help support the human body. Every robot structure needs a controller to interpret the incoming information from the sensor network to power the actuators. Twendy-One’s controller is confined to the backpack built on this robot. There is also an LED pack situated on the chest area to Twendy-One that delivers a visual display of the robot’s internal condition.

At first glance, Twendy-One’s head has a resemblance to ‘Number 5’ an anthropomorphic prototype robot in the 1986 comedy fiction film ‘Short Circuit’. Twendy-One’s head can tilt, roll and pitch - all movements that are possible with three degrees of freedom to its mechanical structure. Researchers have clearly tried to demonstrate their efforts to incorporate motion ability in this robot by its head movements to emotional stimuli. For example, this robot will tilt its head to one side to display an intention (i.e., in the event of a command that has not been understood by the robot). A network of LEDs, CCD cameras, force sensors, and a speaking device all work in conjunction to orchestrate a dialogue.

Twendy-One is just one of many humanoid prototypes currently being tested in the lab for their ability to interact with humans and provide care for the elderly. There are clearly some impressive demonstrations of Twendy-One being able to manipulate and adapt to its environment with the benefit of a highly-sophisticated mechatronic structure.

Though this new technology is promising and if implemented into healthcare systems across the globe could impact factors such as cost and the current healthcare services in developed and developing countries, it still need refining so that such systems can safely respond to human commands and assist in safe preparation and delivery of medication for the elderly.

References

Twendy-One: Technology, design and function.
World Health Organization: Ageing and Life Course.
Nursebot Project. Carnegie Mellon University.

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