How robotics can support independent living for longer

Published:
Assisted Living Lab
Assisted Living Lab

Currently, our homes are not sufficiently equipped to support people experiencing cognitive decline. However, there exists huge potential for robots, sensors and IoT (Internet of Things) devices to complement existing social care services, helping individuals with a range of assisted living needs to live independently in their own homes for longer.

Research in this area is gathering pace at the National Robotarium where our scientists are exploring what the needs are, which technology can best meet these requirements, and what additional challenges the deployment of robots in domestic settings may bring. Writing for AT Today, Professor Lynne Baillie explores the current landscape.

MiRo and Pepper

Though the use of robotics in a social care setting is still at an early stage of development, some positive early results have been achieved. For example, MiRo robots have been used to recognise and assess falls. False alarms and emergency call outs for falls from which a person can get up without assistance puts additional pressure on the resources of councils and housing associations.

In another collaborative research project with Chest, Heart, Stroke Scotland, our team explored how different robots could assist stroke survivors in their daily lives.  One outcome was that patients wanted augmented physical therapy. Using this insight, we started working with physiotherapists at the Astley Ainslie Hospital in Edinburgh to investigate what would be needed to deliver such therapy via a Pepper humanoid robot. The aim is that the Pepper robot will provide additional therapy in between formal sessions with a physiotherapist to continue patient exercises and track progress. 

Early intervention in cognitive decline

Robots can provide valuable support through early intervention - replicating the interactions and therapies that a patient may receive during the later stages of diagnosis. It can encourage early participation in therapies and attempt to stem the decline by way of robotic coaching as well as through various interactive activities. The emphasis is on early intervention to improve the overall trajectory for the patient and to ensure best use of available resources further down the care pathway. 

Additionally, robots and sensors can capture data over longer periods of time than humans and can continuously monitor the deterioration of some conditions such as dementia, highlighting to human carers when a review of a care package may be required.

Challenges posed by robots

There are, of course, practical, operational limitations with robots to consider. For example, many robots can’t climb stairs well. While competent at simple tasks, most robots are challenged by the unexpected. Trust and ethics are potentially limiting factors, and these are being studied in depth by roboticists to develop an understanding of the limitations of current human-robot interaction.  

However, key challenges remain around the use of robots in social care and their acceptability in people’s homes. Tolerance for robots also needs further exploration - how willing are people to ensure robots are always charged and how competent are people to undertake the set-up of a robot? It is this sort of information that needs to be understood to assess which robot technologies will ultimately be most suitable to deploy in the home environment. 

Budgetary considerations pose a further challenge as robotic adoption will not necessarily save the NHS money at the outset. However, delaying the admission of someone into a care home can result in significant financial savings for a council. The long-term strategic aim of our research is to give people the opportunity to enjoy their own home for as long as possible. 

Collaboration and diversity are key

To be effectively embedded in society, robotics needs greater diversity in terms of research, technology creation and policy. Heriot-Watt University has established several two-year MSc bridging courses - in human-robot interaction, artificial intelligence and data science - to enable people from non-technical areas to obtain a computing qualification and enter the field of robotics. 

The National Robotarium is also a collaborative environment and through research partnerships, we look to demystify robotics. We will only develop useful and applicable solutions if our work is underpinned by successful collaboration. 

We aim to bring together the many disparate organisations involved in health care and assistive living, from the NHS and health care professionals, rehabilitation experts such as physiotherapists and occupational therapists, to housing associations, charities, industry and, perhaps most important of all, the end users. We will not get to the point of developing appropriate robotic solutions for the social care setting without this wide collaboration.

The National Robotarium welcomes new partnerships and approaches from interested organisations. Get in touch.

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Annie Pugh