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The Cutting Edge: Computing / Technology / Innovation : Robots Roll Up Their Sleeves : Technology Aims to Help the Elderly Around the House

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sitting squarely on a couch with a joystick in her hand, Frances Turner is dusting a lampshade that’s a good 10 feet away.

With the joystick and accompanying control panel, Turner, a 72-year-old retired accountant, maneuvers an eight-foot-long robotic arm clutching a feather duster. Up and down, back and forth she steers it, until declaring: “This spot is very well dusted.”

Turner and the bright-yellow robot--called Sidekick--may someday be happy housemates as a result of an ambitious effort to develop automated “smart apartments.” These futuristic lodgings would come with a variety of space-age machines to make independent living more manageable for senior citizens.

“The elderly could use various types of help to stay in their apartments longer, and with an ever-increasing number of people over 85 and the current pressure on expenses, we figure this is the way we’ll be going in the future,” said Bob Stark, the director of NASA’s Far West Regional Technology Transfer Center, which is building a prototype smart apartment in Manhattan Beach.

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“I’m all for it,” Turner said. For starters, he would use a robot such as Sidekick to reach items on the top shelves of cabinets. “I think everybody should have them. They make you more independent, and independence makes you feel more secure.”

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With the number of older people in need of home assistance rising steadily--and the aggregate cost of caring for them expected to triple over the next 25 years--smart apartments could save billions of dollars each year, experts say.

They could also mean jobs for Southern California’s unemployed aerospace engineers. They are ideal candidates to pioneer the service robot industry, says K. G. Engelhardt, the NASA scientist spearheading the project.

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“The technology is mature enough now to start talking about very practical applications” of robots, she said. “My real goal is to make California the robot capital of the world.”

Unlike industrial robots, which have been on factory floors since the 1960s, service robots are designed to extend human abilities and work with people rather than as substitutes for them. The industry is so new that even the International Service Robot Assn. is still conducting a market study.

“Service robots are just beginning to make their mark in the United States,” said Jeff Burnstein of the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based robot organization. “Commercial applications have emerged in hospitals, warehouses and at hazardous (materials) sites to perform tasks such as delivering meal trays, security and environmental monitoring and nuclear cleanup.”

For the smart apartment, Engelhardt has brought together a handful of small robotics companies from across North America that have developed robots capable of performing tasks in the home.

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In the Manhattan Beach prototype, a small robot arm on the kitchen counter can open a microwave oven door, clutch a plastic container in its claw-like “hand,” slowly lift it into the oven and then shut the door, in response to two voice commands: “microwave” and “proceed.”

Another robot--about the size of a dishwasher--roams around the living room to clean the carpet. That robot, developed by Cyberworks Inc. of Orillia, Canada, uses pivoting sensors to find furniture and other obstacles and drives itself around them.

Within the next month, the NASA engineers hope to rig the Cyberworks robot so that it can push a wheelchair and walk a dog. Hooked up to a video camera, the robot can answer the doorbell and check on a pot of boiling water, said Vivek Burhanpurkar, president of Cyberworks.

The Sidekick robot arm was developed by Robotics Assistance Corp. of Santa Ana. Founder Peter Movsesian said he wanted to develop a robot that could assist a disabled or elderly person at home without requiring major changes in the living environment.

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“It can open a cabinet, get a glass of water, pick something off the floor--chores that could be a strain” for an elderly person, Movsesian said.

Engelhardt of NASA got the project rolling in May by convincing companies with suitable products to loan them to NASA for a smart apartment. The machines were modified to fit the Manhattan Beach prototype, and they’re now testing it with older residents of the apartment complex.

“If you develop new applications for a core technology, then you can create a whole new industry,” Engelhardt said. “These are useful tools, and they can create jobs.”

If the smart apartment market takes off, Movsesian said he could sell enough of the $8,500-robot arms to employ as many as 100 people in Southern California.

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Cyberworks, which sold “several million dollars” worth of robots last year, is considering moving 2,500 miles to Southern California, Burhanpurkar said. “NASA is trying to lure us to the States, and we may end up being there as a result,” he said.

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Joe Engelberger, a robotics pioneer whose Connecticut company builds service robots for hospitals, said the opportunities for the smart apartment concept are “tremendous.” But he warned it will not be simple. With a unique set of obstacles and a constantly changing environment, the home is one of the most complicated places for robot uses.

“You’ve got stairs, you’ve got glass, you’ve got visitors--there are a lot of unpredictable things,” Burnstein said. “But there could be a huge payoff, because if you could do something that could keep people at home longer (rather than going to nursing homes), that not only makes their life better, it saves money.”

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Using Technology for Seniors’ Care

As the populations ages, demand for assisted-living care is expected to soar. “Smart apartments” can allow some older people to live on their own with the help of robots that can perform household tasks.

NURSING HOME OCCUPANTS (in millions) 1985: 1.31 1990: 1.52 2000: 1.94* 2010: 2.29* 2020: 2.63* 2030: 3.05* 2040: 4.34* 2050: 4.76*

Source: U.S. Administration on Aging

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COSTS OF ELDER CARE (in 1989 dollars)

Year Nursing Homes Home Health Care 1990 $37.6 billion $7.9 billion 2005 $64.0 billion* $13.5 billion* 2020 $112.6 billion* $19.8 billion*

* Projected

Source: Alliance for Aging Research

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