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UK Debuts Robotic Tele-Presence System

The system uses machine learning, artificial intelligence and smart home sensors in combination with a robot to provide healthcare assistance.

By Joel Davies -

The National Robotarium, hosted by Heriot-Watt University, has showcased its intelligent sensing and tele-presence robotic technology for the first time to the UK Government Minister, Iain Stewart during a visit to the National Robotarium’s construction site.

Working with Dr Mario Parra Rodriguez, an expert in cognitive assessment from the University of Strathclyde, the National Robotarium’s assisted living lab has developed the robotic system to allow health practitioners to remotely assess a person’s physical and cognitive health from anywhere in the world.

The research facility is part of the “Data-Driven Innovation” initiative and is supported through the £1.3 billion Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal – a 15-year investment programme jointly funded by both the UK and Scottish government, as well as regional partners.

The scientists behind the technology believe it will aid cost-effective diagnosis, more regular monitoring and health assessments alongside assistance, especially for those living with conditions like Alzheimer’s disease and other cognitive impairments.

Dr Mauro Dragone, who is leading the research said, “With gaps between assessments lengthening, the care and support that is being prescribed to assist vulnerable people may become unsuitable as an individual’s physical and cognitive abilities change over time.

“Our prototype makes use of machine learning and artificial intelligence techniques to monitor smart home sensors to detect and analyse daily activities. We are programming the system to use this information to carry out a thorough, non-intrusive assessment of an older person’s cognitive abilities, as well as their ability to live independently”.

The robots can be equipped with sensors and also operate in a semi-autonomous mode, enriching the capability of the system to deliver data, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. With this, the tele-presence robots can keep clinicians and carers in the loop.

tele-presence robotic
Minister Iain Stewart (middle) meets Stewart Miller, National Robotarium CEO (left) and Professor Yvan Petillot (right), co-academic lead, National Robotarium on the new facility’s construction site. Image: Chris Watt.

Healthcare professionals can benefit from the data provided by the project’s intelligent sensing system, but they can also control the robot directly, over the Internet, to interact with the individual under their care. The professionals can see through the eyes of the robot, move around the room or between rooms and operate its arms and hands to carry out more complex assessment protocols. They can also respond to emergencies and provide assistance when needed.

“In collaboration with Dr Rodriguez, we’ve implemented a full cognitive assessment technique that can be conducted without the patient leaving home or the clinician leaving their office”, continued Dragone. “This has multiple benefits allowing clinicians but also carers and occupational therapists to spot cognitive decline more quickly, assessing how an individual is managing at home and adapting their treatment or support packages to their individual needs. This can have a long-term positive impact on the health of supported people.

“We are now testing our concept with different robot platforms. These include commercially available tele-presence robots – the same used to allow people to attend work meetings remotely – but also the latest examples of assistive robots, such as the Human Support Robot from Toyota. The latter comes with a range of advanced manipulation capabilities which means that, in the future, our system could help carers with the more physically demanding or repetitive aspects of their work”.

The project combines the efforts of three National Robotarium students, including Scott Alexander MacLeod and Ronnie Smith, two PhD students, who are developing the sensing and artificial intelligence components of the project. Additionally, Rakin Sarder, who recently graduated from the MSc programme, is building a cloud platform for tele-health robotic applications using tele-presence robot software delivered by the National Robotarium’s technological partner, Cyberselves. 

Now that the team has successfully tested the feasibility of their concept in the laboratory, they will launch further co-design activities with clinicians and potential users of the technology. They will later run a pilot study in collaboration with Blackwood Homes and Care, using a robot embedded in the company’s care facilities.

You can find more information about the National Robotarium and its robotic tele-presence system on its website.

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