An Australian research team is working to develop a prototype for an affordable, mass-produced telepresence robot that can be used to prevent social isolation among the elderly and keep them in their homes for longer.
Telepresence robots are typically remote-controlled, wireless, wheeled devices which are already in use in tourism, health, security, education and business to provide a remote presence in a particular space.
They also have potential in aged care by providing a crucial lifeline to loved ones as well as making living at home safer and providing company.
Models currently in production overseas stand as tall as a person and have a “face”, voice and the ability to move from room to room.
This means they can accompany an older person during daily activities – to the kitchen to make tea, to the lounge room to watch TV or outside to do some gardening.
If problems that arise, from a faulty coffee pot to a fall, help isn’t far away. A touch of a button allows the robot to call family members or carers off-site, who are able to control the robot externally and manoeuvre the machine to the site of the problem.
“The loved one is then able to see and talk to their older family member on the head-height screen, and can direct them through whatever they need to do,” says Don Kerr, associate professor of information systems at the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) who has been researching the use of telepresence robots with colleague Dr Jacqueline Blake, UNSW and China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University.
“They can also make sure there are no hazards that could cause falls, and they can scan the environment for danger signs – if the older person hasn’t cleaned up the kitchen sink since breakfast, it rings alarm bells.”
Designing an affordable telepresence robot
Dr Kerr has been researching how robots can assist older people for some time and his aim is to devise a telepresence robot that is affordable to everyone.
He said initial testing on the Sunshine Coast indicated the devices could increase feelings of connectedness and reduce loneliness in older people while also addressing safety concerns.
Machines replicating humans aren’t new to the home care sector – in the US they have been dispensing medication; in Japan they have been bathing people.
But until now they have been prohibitively expensive for most. At present a Giraff telepresence robot costs around $12,000; a Double robot, another telepresence humanoid, costs around $3500.
This puts them out of the range of most people, says Dr Kerr, and they are unlikely to be rolled out in Australia any time soon.
The aim of Dr Kerr’s research team is to have a prototype within two years of an affordable telepresence robot that can be mass-produced in Asia. But the team needs an entrepreneur who can look at developing the machines to step up.
“We’re aiming to have a fully functioning robot with all the features we would like for a sale price of under $1000.”
Dr Kerr says there are wide-reaching economic benefits of telepresence robots.
“They would ease government costs by keeping seniors independent in their own home for longer, and with an ageing population and a shortage of carers, this is something we need to consider.”
In the future, he hopes to look at robots who have other capabilities, such as bathing, cleaning the house, picking things up, assisting the older person after a fall, or the intelligence to engage in conversation.
But for this first roll out, loneliness and social isolation are the greatest problems to solve.
“Face to face contact is of course the best, but when it isn’t possible to have regular personal visitors, this is the alternative,” says Mr Kerr.
“A telepresence robot can be with you every day.