“Service robots are coming to help us” on PFI:BIC NSF article

June 8th, 2016

Service robots are coming to help us

Industry, university partnership program tests robot-human interactions

Two students add a manipulating arm to a robot base

Students add an arm to a robot base, making a robot to assist the elderly with manipulation tasks.
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Elder care

Another PFI: BIC project gives researchers from the University of Pennsylvania the opportunity to test how robots interact with older Americans in nursing homes, allowing them to gauge whether the machines have commercial potential.

“The only way robots can be commercially viable is if they serve a real need in an appropriate manner,” said Mark Yim, an engineering professor at the University of Pennsylvania and principal investigator on the project. “Without NSF and PFI, this particular team would not have gotten together. Having the real context of working with elders in the eldercare facility is critical to getting the robot design to be effective.”

Yim works with the University of Pennsylvania (School of Engineering and Applied Science, the School of Medicine and the School of Nursing) and Savioke (a California-based company that is creating robots for the hotel industry), along with two elder care sites in Philadelphia: the Mercy Douglas Residences and Living Independently For Elders (LIFE).

The project consists of two phases: First, the development of a low-cost robot capable of a limited set of manipulation tasks to help older people, such as picking up dropped items or filling a water glass. And second, the development of a data-driven service system that analyzes the use of the robot over time to monitor elder health via service requests and proactively offer assistance as needed.

The team uses “Relay,” a 3-foot tall, cylindrical robot made by research partner Savioke, as its base. Savioke has used Relay to make light deliveries in hotels to guests and will provide the robot with an arm and gripper to help people with tasks such as turning on a faucet or retrieving an item from the floor or cabinet, Yim said.

“On one level, we will gain knowledge about the design of service robots, both hardware and software, that can perform a limited set of manipulation tasks on elders’ behalf,” Yim said. “At a macro level, the information gathered by these robots and how elders use them during field use will help us learn how robots can help create a larger data-driven health monitoring system.”

Yim said the team is still developing its health monitoring system, but he pointed to robots testing hydration as a possible example of how robots can help older people gauge the amount of liquids they need and deliver water at specific intervals.

“I think robotics is going to have a huge impact on elderly care in the future,” Yim said. “The question still remains what form of impact this will be — whether freeing people to do more human-human care or more direct robot-human care.”

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