The federal government is financing the creation of robots that can assist the elderly and make sure they are eating healthily.
A nearly $800,000 project from the National Science Foundation (NSF) is pairing the University of Pennsylvania with a robot company to create the machines, which will be able to deliver glasses of water to senior citizens.
The government said that the project is necessary due to a demographic crisis in America where soon there will not be enough young people to take care of their elders.
"This Partnership For Innovation project develops and tests the use of service robots to monitor and improve health of the elderly," the grant for the project, awarded in August, states. "The growing elderly population coupled with low birth rates in the developed world is creating a crisis in healthcare. The number of senior citizens is outgrowing the number of working-age adults to care for them."
"In the U.S. alone, the number of seniors over age 65 is projected to double from year 2000 to 2030, reaching 71.5 million," it continued. "With the scarcity of care options available, affordable robots are a welcome solution for assisting elders with small tasks that would normally be done by a caregiver."
Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, led by Mark Yim, a professor in the Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics (MEAM) department, are joining with Savioke, a California-based company that is building robots for the services industry.
The robot developed by the NSF project will be able to perform a "limited set of elder-relevant manipulation tasks," including "picking up dropped items or filling a water glass." The machine will also be used for data collection on seniors’ health.
"This mobile manipulator robot will be used to perform service tasks, such as delivering water to elders," the grant said. "The data gathered by these robots and how elders use them in the field will provide information about how robots can help create a larger data-driven health monitoring system."
"While helping elders with activities of daily living in an elder care facility, the system learns about them," it added. "It can then do things such as help ensure that they are eating or drinking healthily."
The project, which is expected to continue until 2017 and has cost $799,860 so far, is building off of Savioke’s robots, including the recently released "SaviOne."
SaviOne provides room service to guests at an Aloft hotel in Cupertino, Calif. The machine looks like a moving trash can with an iPad on top, and makes beep noises to sound like a robot.
The University of Pennsylvania is currently working on adding a "prismatic joint arm" to Savioke’s robots.
"We are passionate about delivering easy-to-use yet sophisticated robots that can help people," the company says on its website.
Savioke believes that personal robots can help people to "achieve their potential," and wants them "anywhere people sleep or eat."
"Over time, personal robots will help people to achieve their potential, enhancing our strengths, overcoming our weaknesses, and endowing us with new capabilities we are just beginning to imagine," they said. "We are inspired by people who use technology to overcome disabilities, and we believe that robots have the potential to make all of our lives better."
Savioke’s CEO, Steve Cousins, formerly was president of Willow Garage, a robot company that helped found the Robots for Humanity initiative. Robots for Humanity was successful in helping Henry Evans, who suffered a debilitating stoke at 40 years old leaving him mute and quadriplegic.
"It took me several years, but with the help of an incredibly supportive family I finally decided life was still worth living," Evans told an audience in a lecture 3,000 miles away in Washington, D.C., from his bed in California. "I became fascinated with using technology to help the severely disabled."
Through robotic technology, Evans is now able to communicate, shave, open his refrigerator, and fly drones, only with the movement of his head.
A Japanese company has already developed robots that are used as companions for the elderly. "Paro," is designed to resemble a baby harp seal, and elderly residents at a California retirement community mistook the robot for an animal.
The NSF is also investing in machines for children, committing $10 million to build robots that will act as kids’ "personal trainers," in an effort to influence their behavior and eating habits.