Like most developed countries, Singapore has a rapidly growing elderly population. One in four Singaporeans is expected to require elder care by 2030. Singapore has also often been ahead of the pack when it comes to using technology to help care for its elderly.
In 2015, for example, Singapore unveiled RoboCoach, a robot trainer to help seniors exercise more. The robot trainer offers personalized workout routines for seniors and makes sure the exercises are done correctly to maximize the benefits.
The latest example of Singapore’s forward-thinking approach was the recent MIT Hacking Medicine Robotics hackathon that saw 12 teams try to turn Segway Robotics’ Loomo robot into an assistive robot to help take care of elderly people.
Loomo, which was introduced at CES 2016, is a small, two-wheeled robotics platform that has a software development kit (SDK) and hardware extension for developers to play with. Loomo has a suite of sensors, including facial and voice recognition abilities, location tracking and the ability to map its environment. Loomo can travel up to 11 MPH for 18 miles before it needs to be recharged.
Team Botler won the competition and the $5,000 first-place prize by capitalizing on Loomo’s mobility to, essentially, create a self-driving wheelchair. Using a custom electromagnetic coupling, Loomo can be hooked up to any ordinary wheelchair and pull it around. Loomo first uses its facial recognition to identify patients at a nursing home, for example, connects to their wheelchair, and pulls them from one location to another.
Sarah Zhang, senior director of robotics business operations at Segway Robotics, says Team Botler’s solution also frees up caregivers, who spend 10 percent of their time pushing wheelchairs around. This will not only help with the shortage of caregivers, but it will also allow caregivers to serve more patients.
“Loomo is very stable platform with man useful sensors, including Intel’s RealSense camera. And since Loomo can move, that helps elderly who lost the ability to move.”
The idea is to allow caregivers to use an app to tell Loomo where to bring wheelchair-bound patients. Some of the kinks that need to be worked out, Team Botler says, is reducing Loomo’s maximum speed and to widen its field of view to detect more obstacles.
MIT is building a self-driving wheelchair that has three LiDAR sensors. Before traveling autonomously, a human needs to drive it through an environment for the sensors to build the map.
Howard Califano, Director at Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research & Technology, which helped produce the hackathon, says the country’s elderly population is very open to robot companions. “We have done some research with soft, cuddly robots in the past that the elderly can hold,” he says. “But we need to experiment with other types of companion robots, keeping in mind that the elderly can’t deal with any complex computer interfaces.”
The second-place finisher was Team DORI, which created a system that can detect and monitor signs of dementia. An interface sits atop Loomo that can perform simple brain games and memory exercises with senior citizens. The system would assess patients and store this data in the cloud for families and doctors to access. Zhang says Loomo would identify patients by using either facial recognition or reading their room numbers and then perform these activities to help keep their brains active.
Team NOW, lead by a surgeon, took home third place for its robot nurse on wheels (NOW), which is designed to bring hospital-grade nursing care into homes. Loomo could interact with the elderly and monitor their blood pressure, for example. If Loomo sees an issue, it can interface with a healthcare professional who can make a virtual diagnosis. Loomo could also alert emergency medical professionals, if needed.
In hopes of taking these solutions to the next level, the top three teams will receive access to prototyping facilities, the Segway Robot Developer Edition platform, Loomo, and funding.
“We’ve held a couple MIT Hacking Medicine events in Singapore, but this is the first about robotics,” Califano says. “Traditionally in Asia you have three generations of family: young kids, adult children, and the elderly. The adult children are responsible for taking care of the elderly. But this is breaking down in many Asian countries.”