December 08, 2015      

Innovate UK has awarded a consortium in Bath, England, £2 million ($3 million) to develop robotics for in-home care.

By 2065, about a quarter of the population in England and Wales will be over 65 years old, up from 18 percent today, according to the U.K. Office of Budget Responsibility.

CHIRON (Care at Home using Intelligent Robotic Omni-functional Nodes) is intended to be a set of modular systems to assist people with everyday tasks such as getting dressed or preparing a meal. This would extend the ability of the ill or elderly to stay at home and free up visiting caretakers for more interpersonal interaction.

In ancient Greek mythology, Chiron was the centaur tutor of the warrior Achilles and renowned for his mastery of multiple skills.

Designability, formerly known as the Bath Institute of Medical Engineering, is the leading the CHIRON project. The nonprofit institute is based at the Royal United Hospital.

Other partners include the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL), Shadow Robot Co., Three Sisters Care, Telemetry Associates, and the Smart Homes & Buildings Association.

London-based Shadow Robot specializes in robotic gripping and manipulation.

Form follows function

“Our approach is to combine modular functional units that work in a distributed manner, adapting to support user needs in context,” said Praminda Caleb-Solly, principal investigator for CHIRON at BRL. “The focus is on robust solutions that can be integrated with other products and assistive devices. This will also impact on personal and social perception and understanding of assistive robotics, and how people interact with these technologies to best support them.”

However, people need good design as well as useful robots to feel independent.

“User-centered design is at the heart of the project,” said Sanja Dogramadzi, associate professor in robotics at BRL. “Through our research, we will focus on the tasks that people tell us are the most burdensome and inhibit independent living, then design the system to help with these.”

“Our ultimate aim is to offer a new perspective on aging, helping people realize their aspirations,” Caleb-Solly said. “It is also important that CHIRON products look good and feel good. Aesthetic and beautiful designs that suit a range of preferences will be developed in collaboration with user-experience and product designers.”

“As the system develops, it will be installed … in the BRL’s Anchor Robotics Assisted Living Studio, which will ensure that it is tested for safety and usability in a realistic environment,” she added.

BRL’s studio is a “living lab” designed to resemble a flat or apartment and that has cameras to see how people would live alongside assistive robots.

Innovate UK provided the government funding through its Long-Term Care Revolution Small Business Research Initiative national challenge. The two-year project will begin in February 2016 and plans to develop a prototype of a commercially viable product.

CHIRON’s developers are optimistic about its prospects. “We envisage a CHIRON in every home,” said Dogramadzi. “CHIRON will be built to grow with us, learn our needs and preferences while we are well, and adapt, expand and learn as our care needs emerge.”

Staying healthy with robots

The U.K.’s CHIRON is just one of several efforts worldwide to apply robotics to healthcare and elder care.

The University of Lincoln is participating in the ENRICHME (Enabling Robot and assisted living environment for Independent Care and Health Monitoring of the Elderly) with institutions in the U.K., Greece, and Poland to test “smart homes” for helping the elderly and caregivers. It will include studies of human-robot interaction.

In addition, a study by the University of Auckland found that healthcare robots can contribute to mental and physical health.

“The results suggest the healthcare robots were feasible for use with a rural population and may have benefits for some patients in reducing the need for medical care, increasing quality of life, reminding patients to take medicine on time, and providing companionship,” said study author Elizabeth Broadbent.

A similar study soliciting feedback from elderly users is under way between Finland and Japan.

In the U.S., the National Institutes of Health has awarded $2.2 million to three projects to develop assistive robots, including work at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock on a wearable sensor to help the visually impaired move and open doors.

Another project is a robotic walker being developed at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.

The third project is at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is led by Jibo Inc. founder Cynthia Breazeal. It is developing an “autonomous, long-term social robotic companion for children that will promote and assess curiosity and a growth mindset through various interactions.”

In addition, University of Illinois researcher Naira Hovakimyan recently won a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation to design aerial drones to help with household chores.

“I’m convinced that within 20 years, drones will be today’s cellphones,” she said.

Not everyone is so sanguine about such technology solutions, though. “We all get really excited on the upside, and then we go through this trough of disillusionment,” said Laurie Orlov, who runs the Aging in Place Technology Watch blog.

Part of the challenge is understanding what people really need. Japan plans to establish 10 centers nationwide next year to get feedback on nursing care robots.