Europe builds a ro­bot army to care for se­niors

Me­chan­i­cal aides can pick up gro­ceries and take out the trash “Ask the ro­bot the same thing 10 times … it will never get an­noyed”

Bloomberg Businessweek (Europe) - - NEWS - −Nick Leiber

Re­tiree Mau­r­izio Fer­aboli taps a gro­cery list into a tablet and sends wheeled ro­bots to re­trieve food from a store near his apart­ment out­side Pisa, Italy. His neigh­bor Wanda Mascitelli di­rects ro­bots to grab the trash from her kitchen and drop it

“The com­mis­sion has very clear goals around the use of ro­bot­ics in the field of ac­tive and healthy ag­ing.” �Andy Bleaden, ex­ter­nal eval­u­a­tor for projects seek­ing Euro­pean Com­mis­sion fund­ing

into a dump­ster on her street. A ro­bot also warns Mascitelli about a pos­si­ble gas leak and later brings her a glass of wa­ter and a bot­tle of vi­ta­mins.

Th­ese scenes are from a video pro­mot­ing the Euro­pean re­search pro­ject Ro­bot-Era, which re­cently con­cluded the world’s largest real-life trial of ro­bot aides for the el­derly. About 160 se­niors in Italy and Swe­den tested the ro­bots dur­ing the fouryear pro­ject, which re­ceived €6.5 mil­lion ($7.2 mil­lion) from the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion and €2.2 mil­lion from part­ners in­clud­ing Ital­ian man­u­fac­turer Robotech and Ap­ple sup­plier ST­Mi­cro­elec­tron­ics. Now Ro­bot-Era man­ager Filippo Cavallo and fel­low pro­fes­sors at the BioRobotics In­sti­tute at the Sant’Anna School of Ad­vanced Stud­ies out­side Pisa have started a com­pany called Co-Ro­bot­ics to com­mer­cial­ize the tech­nol­ogy. “The ro­bots in the video are ready” for more test­ing, says Cavallo, who plans to start sell­ing them as soon as next year.

As part of a plan to strengthen the re­gion’s ro­bot­ics in­dus­try, the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion is in­vest­ing tens of mil­lions of euros an­nu­ally in tech­nol­ogy to help the el­derly. The projects may not be as sen­sa­tional as Toshiba’s an­droid, Chi­hi­raAico, which re­sem­bles a Ja­panese woman, or Honda’s hu­manoid as­sis­tant, Asimo, but the re­sults are on “the same level or even more ad­vanced,” says Uwe Haass, a for­mer sec­re­tary-gen­eral of EuRobotics, a non­profit ad­vo­cacy group in Brus­sels that works with the com­mis­sion.

Backed by €4.3 mil­lion from the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion and part­ners such as Siemens and Tele­com Italia, a pro­ject called Acanto launched in Fe­bru­ary 2015 to make robotic walk­ers that en­cour­age se­niors to ex­er­cise and so­cial­ize. About 100 se­niors in Spain, Italy, and the U.K. will test the devices be­fore the ex­per­i­ment con­cludes in 2018. The goal is to have a ver­sion of the walker for hospi­tals and a less ex­pen­sive one for fam­i­lies priced for less than €2,000, says Luigi Palopoli, the Univer­sity of Trento com­puter en­gi­neer­ing pro­fes­sor over­see­ing the

pro­ject. “A walker that is a ro­bot but doesn’t look like a ro­bot” has a bet­ter chance of be­ing ac­cepted into ev­ery­day life, he says. The Euro­pean Com­mis­sion has given €4 mil­lion to Mario, a group that’s de­vel­op­ing ro­bot com­pan­ions for peo­ple with de­men­tia. “You can ask the ro­bot the same thing 10 times, and it will never get an­noyed,” says Kathy Mur­phy, a pro­fes­sor at the School of Nurs­ing and Mid­wifery at Ir­ish univer­sity NUI Gal­way. She’s help­ing man­age the re­search with part­ners such as French de­vel­oper Ro­bosoft and the U.K. town of Stock­port. This sum­mer, Mario will start pi­lot pro­grams with se­niors in Ire­land, the U.K., and Italy. When the pro­ject con­cludes in 2018, the goal is to com­mer­cial­ize a “cost-ef­fec­tive ro­bot that health­care providers would wish to pur­chase” to help as­suage lone­li­ness and iso­la­tion and re­duce health-care staff, says Mur­phy.

“The com­mis­sion has very clear goals around the use of ro­bot­ics in the field of ac­tive and healthy ag­ing,” says Andy Bleaden, Stock­port’s fund­ing and pro­grams man­ager and an ex­ter­nal eval­u­a­tor for projects seek­ing fund­ing from the Euro­pean Com­mis­sion. Along with ad­dress­ing a so­cial need, he says, “the rea­son the EC is putting money on the ta­ble is to get ours to mar­ket faster than our com­peti­tors.”

That’s the goal of Vin­cent Dupourqué, the founder of Ro­bosoft in Aquitaine, France, which makes the Kom­paï ro­bots Mario is test­ing. A biomed­i­cal en­gi­neer who’s been work­ing in ro­bot­ics since the end of the 1970s, he plans to take Kom­paï ro­bots into com­mer­cial pro­duc­tion next year and pro­duce 10,000 units an­nu­ally in 2020, sell­ing them for €5,000 each. Be­cause of the short­age of care­givers and snow­balling in­ter­est in ro­bot­ics from nurs­ing homes and in­sur­ers, “this is the right time to ac­cel­er­ate,” says Dupourqué.

World­wide, man­u­fac­tur­ers sold 4,416 el­derly and hand­i­cap as­sis­tance ro­bots in 2014, ac­cord­ing to a fall re­port from the In­ter­na­tional Fed­er­a­tion of Ro­bot­ics in Frank­furt. IFR de­scribes el­derly care as a “ma­jor mar­ket of to­mor­row” and projects sales will to­tal 32,500 units from 2015 through 2018.

Prov­ing ro­bots can bet­ter se­niors’ qual­ity of life and re­duce the cost of car­ing is cru­cial to de­vel­op­ing the mar­ket, says Anne Grad­vohl, in­no­va­tion di­rec­tor at In­téri­ale, a Paris-based in­surer that tested Kom­paï ro­bots in a hand­ful of el­derly clients’ homes last year. Par­tic­i­pants “re­al­ized ro­bot­ics is not de­hu­man­iz­ing the re­la­tion­ship,” she says. “They re­al­ized ro­bots aren’t there to re­place care­tak­ers” but to com­ple­ment them and “give peace of mind to their fam­i­lies in case of an emer­gency.” Grad­vohl, who says other in­sur­ers are in­vest­ing in ro­bot­ics com­pa­nies fo­cused on the el­derly, is plan­ning a se­cond round of in-home test­ing with Kom­paï ro­bots. That will last 6 to 12 months with a larger group of clients who need daily as­sis­tance. “We don’t con­sider ro­bot­ics an an­swer to ev­ery­thing,” she says, “but it can help peo­ple stay at home longer with se­cu­rity at an af­ford­able price.”

The bot­tom line By one es­ti­mate, 32,500 ro­bots de­signed to help care for the el­derly and dis­abled will be sold from 2015 through 2018.

By 2020, Ro­bosoft plans to pro­duce an­nu­ally 10,000 Kom­paï ro­bots, de­signed for peo­ple suf­fer­ing from de­men­tia.

A ro­bot be­ing tested by Ro­bot-Era has been pro­grammed to ac­com­pany a woman to the din­ing room at a nurs­ing home in Florence.

To en­cour­age se­niors to ex­er­cise and so­cial­ize,Acanto looks to sell a ver­sion of its walker to fam­i­lies for less than €2,000.

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