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Innovate UK funding for assistive robotic system will offer a ‘new perspective on ageing’

4 December 2015

A consortium of leading researchers, care providers and robotics experts have received a major award of over £2m from Innovate UK to develop a modular robotic solution for the home to revolutionise long-term care by giving people the choice to stay independent in their own homes as they age.

The Office for Budget Responsibility recognises that by 2065, 26 per cent of the population of England and Wales would be more than 65 years old, up from 18 per cent today. With increasing numbers of older adults needing assistance in later life, there is a challenge for society as to how best provide and maintain high quality support, and ensure that people can stay integrated and valued members of their communities.

The CHIRON project is developing a connected system of modular robotic components, which can be adapted to different assistive tasks. CHIRON’s various components will be designed to be mixed and matched. This will enable the person using CHIRON to undertake a wide range of domestic and self-care tasks independently, which for some people could mean that their carer would then have more time to spend providing valuable social companionship. The project will create a prototype that will lead to the development of a commercially viable product.

The CHIRON consortium is led by Designability, specialists in assistive technology solutions that enhance people’s lives. The key technology partners are Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) and Shadow Robot Company, experts in conducting pioneering research and development in robotics. Award winning social enterprise care provider, Three Sisters Care will bring user-centred design to the core of the project, with Telemetry Associates providing project management support. Smart Homes & Buildings Association, specialists in telecare and assisted living, will bring sector knowledge to the project to support commercialisation.

The project will draw upon the consortium’s expertise of working with end-users, clinicians, and health and social care providers, to develop an effective robotic solution that offers adaptability to a person's changing needs.

Designability Director, Professor Nigel Harris said, ‘We are tremendously pleased to contribute to this work, focusing on the Long Term Care Revolution. This project is all about technological innovation and perfectly complements other work that looks at social innovation.’

Praminda Caleb-Solly, Associate Professor in Independent Living Systems, who is principal investigator on CHIRON in the Bristol Robotics Laboratory, said, “We are proposing a paradigm shift to enable assistive care robots to become a reality. Our approach is to combine modular functional units that work in a distributed manner, adapting to support user needs in context. The focus is on robust solutions that can be integrated with other products and assistive devices. This will also impact on personal and social perception and understanding of assistive robotics, and how people interact with these technologies to best support them.

“Our ultimate aim is to offer a new perspective on ageing, helping people realise their aspirations as they age. It is also important that CHIRON products look good and feel good. Aesthetic and beautiful designs that suit a range of preferences will be developed in collaboration with user experience and product designers. As the system develops it will be installed and trialled in the BRL’s Anchor Robotics Assisted Living Studio which will ensure that it is tested for safety and usability in a realistic environment.”

Sanja Dogramadzi, Associate Professor in Robotics, who is the project technology lead for BRL, said, “Our vision is a CHIRON in every home. CHIRON doesn’t have one body, but many. A set of intelligent modular robotic systems, located in multiple positions around your home; CHIRON could help you with personal hygiene tasks in the morning, help you get ready for the day and even support you in preparing your favourite meal in the kitchen. User-centred design is at the heart of the project. Through our research we will focus on the tasks that people tell us are the most burdensome and inhibit independent living, then design the system to help with these.”

Rich Walker, Managing Director of the Shadow Robot Company, said, “Shadow's founding vision is to use robots to solve real-world problems for real people. This Long Term Care Revolution project will create a new generation of robot technology - affordable and aspirational - to change the way we think and feel about aging. We are fantastically excited by this opportunity.”

Jobeda Ali, CEO of Three Sisters Care, said, “The workforce requirement in domiciliary care has increased by 35% since 2009. Care providers like us are finding it extremely difficult to meet the shortfall. By 2025, nationwide we will have a workforce gap of 75,000 care workers. This ultimately means that older people will go without care or receive very poor quality care. Technology is a crucial part of the plan to meet this workforce shortage and this project will be instrumental in averting a care crisis as the UK’s demographic changes. Robotic assistance will allow more people to avoid being institutionalised and will allow couples to remain together if one of them needs extra care.”

A key component of the system will be a flexible wall or ceiling mounted robotic arm-like structure, which will fold away when not in use. The device will provide various degrees of support in assisting a person, depending on their particular needs. The hardware of the robotic arm will be part of an integrated system in the home, designed to be connected to other devices and sensors, and capable of responding to voice, visual and touch inputs.

In the future the design will enable the core device and system to be adapted and upgraded as the needs of a person changes, so that someone with a condition which changed over time could have their individual assistive robotic elements altered to provide the additional support needed.

The project will draw upon existing care technologies and develop new ones, focusing on economic, pragmatic and aesthetic designs that are affordable and desirable. Award winning social enterprise care provider, Three Sisters Care, in collaboration with Designability, will ensure that the user is at heart of the project.

The funding for this project has been awarded by Innovate UK’s Long Term Care Revolution SBRI national challenge that aims to revolutionise long term care in the UK through business-led innovation. The two year project will begin in February 2016.

Innovate UK funding for assistive robotic system will offer a ‘new perspective on ageing’
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