Assisted living robots are set to lend a helping hand

Melissa Bradshaw takes a look at some of the UK’s latest developments in assisted living robotics: a growing area of engineering with a key role to play in supporting the healthcare sector post-pandemic

Image: Heriot-Watt University

It’s difficult to name an area of our lives that hasn’t been affected in some way by the Covid-19 pandemic. And whilst many of these impacts have been largely unwelcome, there have been some positives including – perhaps most notably – our relationship with technology.

The ability to interact remotely has become more important than ever, and the acceleration of new technologies that allow this has provided a solution to issues presented by Covid-19 across a range of different industries including the healthcare sector.

Whilst the concept of digitalisation in healthcare is not new, the appetite for it has increased substantially in recent months. “The pandemic has highlighted the growing need for remote healthcare delivery and medical services,” Ravinder Dahiya, IEEE fellow and professor of electronics and nanoengineering at Glasgow University told The Engineer. “Robotics and wearable technology can of course provide a solution and help support this.”

Dahiya added that many of the UK’s increasing aging population suffer from reduced mobility and require regular check-ups and access to professional medical services, an instance whereby these types of technology could significantly improve quality of life.

One institution that understands the value these technologies can bring to those with assisted living needs is Scotland’s Heriot-Watt University which is set to host a purpose-built research and development facility aiming to help bring cutting-edge innovations in robotics from the lab to market. 

The pandemic has highlighted the growing need for remote healthcare delivery and medical services

Prof. Ravinder Dahiya, IEEE fellow

Due to open at the University’s Edinburgh campus in 2022, the National Robotarium will expand on the university’s existing research to help develop life-changing technologies for the UK and beyond, exploring robotics and autonomous systems and the way they interact with humans and their wider environments.

As part of the existing research being undertaken at the university’s Centre for Robotics, the Open Ambient Assisted Living (OpenAAL) project has been at the core of its work exploring the importance of robotics in helping the healthcare sector bounce back from the strain it was placed under by the pandemic.

Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPRSC), the OpenAAL project is led by Dr Mauro Dragone, an assistant professor at Heriot-Watt. At the heart of the project is the Robotic Assisted Living Testbed (RALT), a ‘living lab’ designed to simulate the real environment of a home.

“The Robotic Assisted Living Testbed is a robotic laboratory focused on investigating innovation for the healthcare and support sector,” Dragone said. “We are working with stakeholders in Scotland and the UK, care and support service providers such as nursing homes, housing associations and care group organisations.”

Following the pandemic, the OpenAAL project has had a particular focus on the fast creation of solutions for those with health conditions that have been particularly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, such as multi-morbidity conditions and severe mental health difficulties. 

“We call it a living laboratory — this is a term we give it as it’s a type of laboratory that simulates the domestic environment as close as possible for several reasons,” said Dragone. “One, because we want to test our solutions in very realistic settings, not in clean laboratory settings, because we know that domestic environments pose some difficulties for these technologies.

“The other reason is that our work relies on bringing people into our laboratory, and we don’t want them to step into a laboratory. We want them to believe they are in their home of the future, and that the way they interact with the technology will be in as naturalistic a manner as possible.”

Image: Heriot-Watt University

The lab, set up to operate like a flat with multiple rooms, is kitted out with a range of IoT (Internet of Things) devices and sensors that allow practitioners, designers and end users to test the effectiveness of new assisted living technologies, Dragone explained. 

A network of IP cameras has also been installed to allow for live broadcasting from the lab, and more recently, cloud-based tools have been tested to provide remote access to the laboratory. The use of these alongside telepresence robotic platforms has been particularly important during the pandemic where social distancing measures have prevented in-person visits to the facility.

The university has also partnered with Sheffield University spin-out Cyberselves, a start-up which, through its technology, is able to offer an immersive demonstration experience of the laboratory’s robotics. When wearing the wireless VR gear, the headset can be programmed to control the robot and allow the user to experience life from the robot’s perspective. According to Dragone, this helps to ‘demystify’ the concept of robotics.

“In the eyes of someone who is not an expert, a robot is a very capable thing, and that creates concerns especially in the healthcare sector,” he said. “Some people imagine that robots will replace the carers and the robot will provide care, but when you step inside the robot you realise that the robot [would have] a very difficult job to do that.”

Earlier this year, the National Robotarium hosted a collaborative robotics and social care event in partnership with event company Product Forge, the Usher Institute and Design Informatics at the University of Edinburgh, and Scottish Health Innovations Ltd (SHIL).

Aiming to bring together innovators and end users in a ‘week-long burst of creativity’, successful innovations featured in the event included the ‘Earswitch’, created by Somerset-based GP Dr Nick Gompertz. Designed for people with severe communication difficulties, the Earswitch utilises a sensor that can be placed in the ear canal which then allows voluntary movements of the eardrum to trigger and control devices.

During the event, Dr Gompertz collaborated with Heriot-Watt PhD student Thomas Gillett to improve the Earswitch’s accuracy and allow it to connect with a range of assistive devices and robotic technologies, allowing an end user to control multiple home appliances using just a tiny muscle within the ear.

In the eyes of someone who is not an expert, a robot is a very capable thing, and that creates concerns especially in the healthcare sector

Dr Mauro Dragone, Heriot-Watt University

Other successes included the Hermes Holistic Messenger — declared the winner of the event — a concept for technology-aided social cognition and human interaction. Designed by a team led by Dr Mel McKendrick, assistant professor at Heriot-Watt’s School of Social Science – Psychology, the concept focuses on improving virtual communication tools used in remote befriending applications provided for those who experience social isolation, for example the elderly or those suffering with mental health conditions. Through use of the proposed technology, virtual befriending applications would be able to assist the user in picking up on social cues and emotions that may otherwise have been missed due to communication difficulties.

“By enhancing social cognition through increasing the befriender’s awareness of the cultural and mental individual differences of the befriending recipient, the experience and continued social support may yield significant reductions in feelings of social isolation and associated negative impacts,” said McKendrick.

Meanwhile, the runner-up concept ‘Curi-O’ was developed by a team led by Rakin Sarder, an MSc student in human-robot interaction at Heriot-Watt, and was centred around patients recovering at home after being discharged post-treatment. 

The proposed concept was a robotic nursing service model that would allow healthcare professionals to monitor the patient’s health through use of a telepresence robot — a remote-controlled robot that utilises internet connectivity, a video camera and screen to provide remote presence capabilities — improving the home recovery process for patients, particularly those experiencing physical or cognitive difficulties.

Image: Heriot-Watt University

Another example of a UK university leading the charge in the development of robotic technologies for improved independent living solutions is UWE Bristol, which has been working with Heriot-Watt alongside Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam and Hertfordshire universities on a new assisted living project named ‘EMERGENCE’.

Similarly to the OpenAAL lab at Heriot-Watt, the Bristol Robotics Lab at UWE is home to its Anchor Robotics Personalised Assistive Robotics Studio, providing a living lab environment for testing assisted living robotics solutions.

Technologies being explored include telepresence robots, social ‘humanoid’ robots that can communicate with a person to act as their assistant and give instructions on carrying out tasks — for example, how and when to take medicine — and physically assistive robots that can provide support with physical tasks such as picking up objects or helping the user to get out of bed.

Interview: Prof Chris Melhuish, director, Bristol Robotics Laboratory

Led by UWE, the new EMERGENCE project aims to establish a network to encourage the use of healthcare robotics for providing support to those living with frailty. Funded by a three-year £700,000 EPSRC NetworkPlus grant, the project involves collaboration with regional academic health science networks, care commissioning groups, integrated care systems, hospital trusts, residential and community care providers and local authority councils.

Partners will also include robotics companies Consequential, Cyberselves and PAL Robotics; and independent charity Skills for Care UK.

UWE assisted living robotics professor Praminda Caleb-Solly, leader of the EMERGENCE project, said: “Healthcare robots are increasingly recognised as solutions in helping people improve independent living, by having the ability to offer physical assistance as well as supporting complex self-management and healthcare tasks when integrated with patient data. 

“The EMERGENCE network will foster and facilitate innovative research and development of healthcare robotic solutions so that they can be realised as pragmatic and sustainable solutions providing personalised, affordable and inclusive health and social care in the community.”