Robot Bristol Robotics Laboratory, one of the world’s leading centres for robotics, has opened a “living lab,” a replica apartment to test assistive robots designed to help elderly people live more independently. The UK facility is the latest to fabricate a home environment to develop and evaluate new robotics solutions, but it’s not the first.

“Participatory design with the people and organisations who will be using the technology is critical to the way we are developing robots to support older adults in the future,” said Dr Praminda Caleb-Solly who is leading the new Bristol Robotic Laboratory (BRL) project. “All of our work is centred on a deep understanding of the needs of people so that we shape the technology to respond appropriately.”

The new space, on the site of the University of the West of England (UWE Bristol) campus, has been designed to resemble a typical single level home comprising an open-plan living, dining and kitchen area and a bathroom and bedroom.

It’s fitted with a network of wireless sensors linked to a Smart Home Controller Hub, wi-fi cameras and an ADSL connection. The team are using the sensor data to detect patterns of activity in the house to build adaptable algorithms that can be adapted to each person’s lifestyle to support independent living.

Sensor data is sent to a Cloud server and also processed locally, enabling a robot to react if something untoward happens, such as an elderly person not eating when they need to before taking medication.

Perhaps most importantly, the apartment comes with a telepresence robot that enables remote monitoring and an alert can also be sent to a carer who can then try and contact the person, via phone or text message. If there is no response from the person then the carer could activate the telepresence robot and see if there is a problem.

“If the person has had a fall or a heart attack for example appropriate emergency assistance can be deployed immediately and if they are able to, they can be reassured by the carer remotely while help arrives,” explains Caleb-Solly. “This technology could avoid expensive triggering of emergency services when they are not needed but also ensures that they are deployed faster if necessary.”

Elderly people have been recruited to help the lab scientists assess their work and the facility has been sponsored by The Anchor Society which supports elderly, frail and isolated people in Bristol. How do older people respond to an automated machine asking them if they want to play a game? What happens when Molly, the robot carer, talks to someone who has dementia? These are vital questions, and the new lab hopes that asking them in a real-life situation will improve their work.

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