Fans of Disney’s award-winning animated film, Big Hero 6 may recall the lovable Baymax – an inflatable healthcare companion robot which detects medical conditions and provides general healthcare support. This certainly is not the stuff of fantasy and it appears that healthcare robots around the world are doing more than just the heavy lifting.
Earlier this year, the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) launched a fleet of 25 robots or TUG units designed to take over some of the more menial tasks associated with hospitals such as delivering drugs, linen and meals while disposing soiled sheets and medical waste. These autonomous mobile robots have built-in maps and sensors to navigate the hospital. It has a vocabulary of about 70 phrases including “departing now”; “Waiting for clear path” and the clearly essential “Please don’t push TUG into elevator!” Its drawers are locked for secure transport and each one can carry up to 1,000 pounds. The hospital believes these TUGs will enable hospital staff to spend more time on direct patient activities whilst preventing possible injuries through lifting heavy weights.
We reported on Japan’s Robobear in our last edition and Japan’s ageing population certainly propels it towards becoming a key centre for robotic developments especially in healthcare. Car manufacturer Toyota has developed what it calls the Human Support Robot (HSR) which can pick objects off the floor, pick up items from shelves as well as other tasks. This robot can make a real difference in supporting assisted living to enable the elderly and disabled to remain independent as much as possible. The HSR can also be operated remotely by family members or other parties and because the operator’s face and voice is relayed in real time, there is a genuine sense of real human interaction.
On a similar but smaller and simpler scale, iRobi is a project co-funded by the Korean and New Zealand governments with the aim of alleviating social isolation for some elderly residents from rural communities. The machines can assess blood pressure, heart rate and temperature and reminds people when to take their medication. But it would seem that a big advantage emerging through this trial has been a sense of companionship. iRobi has some limited speech and displays ‘emotions’ with lights. If you pat iRobi it gives a welcoming “Hi!” If it’s low on battery, it will say “I’m hungry.” Dr Elizabeth Broadbent from the University of Auckland explains that “patients said that having the robot felt like they had a companion in the house and they didn’t feel so alone…. An unexpected finding was the robot’s blinking lights – the lights enhanced the robots’ social presence which was reassuring to patients and helped them see when the surroundings were dark late at night or in the morning.”
And of course robots have been used in general surgical operations since the early 2000s but this could become even more advanced with a deal struck between Google and Johnson & Johnson to develop surgical robots that use artificial intelligence. Google is using technology such as image analysis that it has used successfully in other parts of the business e.g. Google’s self-driving cars. This co-operation between the two organisations will examine how advanced imaging could complement a surgeon’s abilities and attempt to overlap important information so that surgeons have information at just the right time.
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