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Large-scale robotics study at Auckland retirement village

Large-scale robotics study at Auckland retirement village

The University of Auckland and a cluster of South Korean companies have launched a multi-robotic study at an Auckland retirement village.

Researchers are conducting six separate robotics studies involving 31 robots sourced from South Korea one from Japan, and 100 staff and 100 residents from Selwyn Village in Auckland. The large-scale study, which is funded by the Ministry of Science and Innovation, is believed to be the first of its kind in the world.

The Healthbots project is an international collaboration between Uniservices, and South Korean companies, Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute (ETRI), the Yujin Robot Company, ED Corporation and Isan Solutions.

Head of the Healthbots project, Professor Bruce Macdonald from the Faculty of Engineering says it aims to make robots that are helpful assistants for older people and for their caregivers.

“We want to help older people to be more independent where they want to be, and to be happier and more socially interactive using the robot as a conduit for interaction. We want to help care staff by doing simple tasks and giving staff more time to spend on the more human and more caring things that both staff and older people prefer to do together.”

Ngaire Kerse, Professor of General Practice and Primary Healthcare, says the studies are important because the enhancement of the environment with stimulating and interactive activities can improve the quality of life and relieve loneliness for older people.

“Robots could provide an interesting option and also be an aid to communication and health monitoring.”

The Healthbots project was launched in 2008 with initial focus groups and questionnaires to find out what people wanted in a healthcare robot. A pilot study was then conducted using one type of robot, Cafero, or Charlie, as he was called by the researchers, staff and residents. Charlie performed basic tasks such as taking blood pressure and entertaining residents with jokes and music.

Dr Liz Broadbent, a Senior Lecturer in Psychological Medicine, says robots offer many potential benefits, but there are challenges to their acceptance in everyday life.

“We have found that pre-existing ideas and attitudes towards robots influence how people respond. Another key factor is how human-like the robots look and sound. These findings have helped us improve the design of the robots for specific tasks and highlighted the need to address negative preconceptions.”

The large-scale study will evaluate five different types of robots: Friend, Guide, Paro, iRobiQ and Cafero robots.

The robots can perform tasks such as recording the residents’ heart rate or blood pressure, providing entertainment in the form of music videos, and reminding residents to take their medication and alert nurses if someone falls. The residents can Skype from some of the robots, find out what daily activities are on at the village and play games to help their mental fitness.

The robots are being placed around Selwyn Village’s Pt Chevalier premises including in its cafe, medical centre, hospital and in residents’ rooms and in the communal spaces.

Some of the robotics studies being carried out include medication reminder trials, activity trials and companion trials.

One of the studies involves 28 residents having a robot in their rooms for a six-week period. The robots can be used for entertainment, to Skype family and friends, to listen to music as well as monitor blood pressure.

The medication trials use robots to remind residents to take their medication. If residents fail to do so then the robot alerts the on-site doctor. The robots, which can monitor their users’ blood pressure and heart rate, can also send regular reports to the on-site doctor.

The activity trials involve residents wearing armbands which monitor their whereabouts. If they have a fall then the monitor bands send an alert to the nurse’s station. The data is being monitored in conjunction with a hospital in Germany to see if it is possible to predict a fall before it happens.

Another trial involves the Paro robot, based on a Canadian harp seal which has tactile sensors and responds to being patted by moving its tail and opening and closing its eyes. The robot, which produces sounds similar to a baby seal, is being trialled with dementia patients in the retirement village to see if it has a positive psychological effect on them. According to overseas studies the therapeutic robot can reduce patient stress and improve motivation and relaxation.

“It has all the benefits of pet therapy but without the cleaning up after it,” says Dr Bruce Macdonald.

Editors’ notes:

The Healthbots research team is multidisciplinary, involving engineers, health psychologists, medical doctors, nurses, health informatics and computer scientists.

Seed funding for the Healthbots project was provided by UniServices, the University’s commercialisation company and ongoing funding is provided by the Ministry for Science and Innovation as well as the Korean Government.

UniServices has set up a partnership programme which allows New Zealand companies to be involved in the project. Several companies, including Zephyr, Stickmen Studios, Chiptech, Pulsecor and Panacea, have signed up so far.


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