The Digital Innovation Hub Healthcare Robotics (DIH-HERO) has the goals of fostering closer exchanges between science and companies, especially small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), accelerating the market introduction of innovations, and ensuring mutual support. This independent platform, which can be used by organisations from the fields of healthcare and medical technology with an interest in networking, was presented at the European Robotics Forum in Bucharest in March 2019. The European Union is providing 16 million euro of funding for the project. The German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics, which is home to the MIRO Innovation Lab and the SMiLE (service robotics for people living with disabilities) and VITA (Virtual Therapy Arm) projects, is one of the partners in the consortium.
"The DIH-HERO network will make an important contribution towards innovation in healthcare robotics," says Alin Albu-Schäffer, Head of the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics. "The entire value chain will benefit from networking between those involved. Innovative products and services can be brought to market faster and more efficiently, which will greatly benefit European society. In its work relating to the healthcare sector, DLR will also be able to draw upon advanced robotic technology that was originally developed and qualified for use by astronauts in space." Companies, research institutions, hospitals, retirement homes, investors and end users across Europe will have to access expertise relating to healthcare robotics via an online portal that has been in development since March 2019. This is intended to allow SMEs, in particular, to look for partners, identify funding opportunities and obtain information about international standards. It is also a place to gather and process information about best practice and new features, which can then be shared within the network.
Support for technology transfer
Some 17 consortium partners from 11 different European regions are involved in DIH-HERO. Together with DLR, the German contingent includes the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation and Aachen University Hospital. The University of Twente in the Netherlands is responsible for coordinating the project. Various events will be held – some of them locally – with the aim of finding other partners for the network who can contribute their own expertise or services. The eight-million-euro budget that will be made available to small and medium-sized enterprises may be of particular interest. SMEs can apply for funding in a total of five calls for tender.
The first call for tender, which is expected to open in mid-2019, will offer travel vouchers for SMEs attending a large brokerage event in the autumn. The subsequent calls for tender will focus on technology and innovation. Two calls for tender will allow SMEs to apply for 100,000 euro of funding for projects with a maximum duration of nine months. The aim of this is to demonstrate the feasibility of innovative robotics technologies and apply it to the healthcare sector. The final and most generous call for tender will support technology transfer – a total of 20 projects lasting no longer than 15 months will each receive 200,000 euro. In addition, the network partners will offer coaching for all projects.
The individual projects should be sustainable and facilitate future cooperation. "Thanks to its expertise, DLR can provide valuable support for SMEs," says Albu-Schäffer. "In turn, we will benefit from learning what companies need at an early stage, which will accelerate the transfer of technology to the market."
Medical robotics and assistance systems at DLR
DLR is already conducting a wide array of projects relating to medical robotics. In the MiroSurge project, researchers have developed a modular telesurgery system for minimally invasive medical procedures, in which three robotic arms assist the surgeon with the operation. Both the video stream of the endoscope and the measured forces can be displayed to the surgeon at his or her console. Not only can the surgeon see what is happening within the operation area, but he or she can also feel it on the input devices, thanks to force feedback. Another project currently underway at the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics is the mobile EDAN robot (EMG-controlled daily assistant), an assistive robotics system for people with severe motor impairments. The robot is controlled using muscle signals. To give one example, the system can help patients with muscular atrophy to perform everyday tasks such as drinking from a glass. Medical robotics can also contribute expertise when it comes to rehabilitation. In the VITA research project, DLR is working with a virtual rehabilitation environment, in which people with upper-limb impairment (for example due to amputation or a stroke) can perform rehabilitation exercises. The users can control a fully functional representation of their impaired limb(s) in virtual reality. This can alleviate phantom limb pain in patients. Its intent-detection system is based on highly advanced machine learning.
Interested companies, organisations and research institutions can find more information or apply to become a partner at www.dih-hero.eu.