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Assistance robots

Assistance robots: the machines that will look after people

Assistance robots are concerned for the wellbeing of their users, they help them move around their home and they pick objects up. This is how these automatons work, and they will be introduced into homes to accompany the elderly or patients with some dependency

These days no one has any problem reserving a space in their home for appliances like a washing machinefridge or microwave. What is more, they are an essential part of our day-to-day living. This is something that assistance robotics is also aiming for, as they develop specialised automata to care for people with a dependency. Their objective is to integrate these robots in the home as if they were simply another appliance, so that it becomes normal to live with them.

For the moment they have begun to be used in hospitals and nursing homes, but it is also expected that they will reach the domestic environment, given the progressive ageing of society. According to United Nations data, the over 60 population will increase by 3% every year, so that by 2030 there will be 1.4 billion older people in the world. These machines will play a key role in the mental and physical support of older people who continue to live in their homes.

“They perform a wide variety of tasks, from providing company to handling objects to pass them to the user", explains Carlos Balaguer, director of the Robotics Lab at the Carlos III University of Madrid (Spain). According to the expert, moving around a home is not an easy task, and research groups from across the world are involved in developing the technologies needed to achieve it. 

Some of them met at theinternational conference on intelligent robots, IROS 2018, held in Madrid (Spain) and sponsored by Banco Santander. One of the editions of the European Robotics League (ERL) was held there, in which different teams had to programme their robots to help an older person in their living room. 

Francisco Martín, who heads up the Robotics Group at the Rey Juan Carlos University (Spain), which participated in the IROS 2018 ERL together with the University of León (Spain), explains: “Although these technologies are usually aimed at older people, they can improve anyone’s quality of life. For example, we are involved in a project with the Ministry of Economics and Business (Spain) to create an assistance robot to accompany people who have brain damage after having suffered an accident. In this case, they are mobile robots that keep an eye on whether the user is well."

Humanoids, robotic arms and exoskeletons

“How are you?", "where you want to go?" These are some of the most common questions asked by humanoidsrobots inspired by the human physiognomy, to find out about the status of their human counterparts. One of the most well-known is the assistance robot Pepper, designed by the Japanese engineer Kamame Hayashi. It detects the mood of the people it talks to and recognises their gestures, sounds and expressions. Although its most common uses are to serve the public and be master of ceremonies, it is also used in hospitals to guide patients and family members around.

Pepper was the first humanoid designed to interact with people, and it has become a benchmark among assistance robotics. Now its creator is involved in the development of Lovot, an automaton for the domestic environment that is able to listen to its owners’ problems and offer them company. Other similar cases are Toyota’s human assistance robot, which can move around and pick up objects from the floor thanks to its movable arm, and TEO, developed by the Robotics Lab of the Carlos III University of Madrid (Spain), which irons or serves meals and drinks on a tray.

Although they can be the most eye-catching due to their social skills, humanoids are not the only automatons that look after people. They are also developing robotic arms, like Asibot, created by the Carlos III University, to assist quadriplegics. One end of this arm is attached to the wheelchair and the other is used for feeding or to get an object off a high shelf. Jaco, developed by Kinova, works along similar lines. It has six joints that rotate infinitely to achieve the necessary movements and access the places that its owner tells it to.

As well as offering help "from outside" like humanoids and mechanical arms do, assistance robotics is also designing solutions that are incorporated into the user's body. These are exoskeletons; wearable systems for people with mobility problems. For example, the company Marsi Bionics has created a kind of bionic knee so that people who have suffered neurodegenerative conditions, such as a stroke, can walk again.

Human-machine interaction

Making the relationship between automatons and human beings easier is one of the challenges of robotics in general. “In the assistance discipline, humanoids are responsible for meeting this challenge," says Martín. Firstly, they must be safe. To achieve this, Concepción Alicia Monje, a doctorate and researcher at the Robotics Lab of the Carlos III University of Madrid (Spain), explains that it is essential to improve movement and manipulation. “Bipedal locomotion is complex because the robot needs to achieve stability and balance as they move. Giving an automaton the skill of manipulation is not straightforward either, because it must grab objects in a coordinated manner," she says.

After that, "we must endow robots with cognitive architecture through solutions based on artificial intelligence. This allows them to understand the person in front of them. For example, when someone asks a robot to go and pick something up from a room, it automatically knows the sequence of actions that it has to perform: crossing a corridor, going through a door, picking up the object and giving it to the user," says Martín.

To this ability to reason and act, Monje adds another challenge: sensorisation. “Sensors are used to recognise the environment. The more data they can collect about users and the space in which they move, the more correctly the automata will be able to perform actions," she says.

But this technological development is not enough, you also have to take care of the robots’ appearance. 

How does a human feel when they are relating to a machine? 

“The more closely it resembles the shape of a person, the more accepted the machine will be," indicates Martín. Hence Pepper, Teo and Lovot have a human appearance. “Although you have to be careful. If it closely resembles a person, it can give rise to rejection. The three key points are its appearance, size, [it should be no larger than the person it has in front of it so that they don't feel threatened] and voice [for example, that it has the same accent as the person with whom it is interacting]," he details.

In spite of everything, the great challenge is to get these robots out of the laboratories in which they are being developed and put them on the market. “Assistance robotics is expensive. For example, we are creating a robot that costs 15,000 euros," says Martín. He is certainly confident that in a few years these automatons will be democratised so that they reach homes. “When that happens it will transform homes," he says. In this way, in the not-too-distant future it will not be odd to live with humanoids that roam the corridors or with robotic arms that prepare food.

By Alba Casilda