August 18, 2022 | SMiLE Project explores assistance systems

Robots for people in need of care

  • Robotic assistants are intended to relieve nursing staff and increase independence in everyday life.
  • Various systems are being tested – the robots were originally developed for spaceflight.
  • Lightweight robots are sensitive when dealing with humans.
  • Focus areas: Spaceflight, robotics, technology, digitalisation

Although robots cannot replace human caregivers, they can provide support so that caregivers have more time to provide the personal, human touch. The German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) is testing various robotic care assistants in a series of projects. Although these robots were developed for spaceflight, they can also help with essential tasks on Earth.

What activities will robots be allowed to take on in care in the future? How will it be ensured that people and their needs are always at the heart of technological advances? How can robotic assistance systems be used in retirement homes, private households and hospitals? Researchers from the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics in Oberpfaffenhofen are investigating these questions in the SMiLE (Service Robotics for People in Living Situations with Limitations; Servicerobotik für Menschen in Lebenssituationen mit Einschränkungen) Project. "Robotic care assistants are intended, on the one hand, to relieve the burden on care staff and, on the other, to provide those affected with a greater degree of independence in their everyday lives. In this way, the robots can make a decisive contribution to improving the quality of life and communication with relatives and caregivers," explains project manager Jörn Vogel.

Three assistance systems: Rollin' Justin, EDAN and HUG

A humanoid service robot can serve as a helping hand for an elderly person. A person with severe mobility impairments is more likely to use a robotic chair. There is also an interface between the systems. Several systems are being prepared for optimal human assistance.

  • Rollin‘ Justin is a humanoid, two-armed, mobile home assistance robot. It monitors its environment via sensors and cameras and evaluates this information. Its lightweight arms enable sensitive interaction with the environment. Rollin' Justin uses artificial intelligence (AI) to plan its workflows autonomously.
  • EDAN is a wheelchair with a lightweight robotic arm and hand. It is moved with a joystick or via muscle signals measured directly on the surface of the person's skin. EDAN and Rollin' Justin can also be moved by relatives via smartphones or tablets. Remote control from a care control centre is possible.
  • HUG is a haptic input station with two lightweight arms for remote robot control. HUG measures human movements, uses them as signals, and relays them in this way. At the same time, the user feels the exact forces that the robot senses. In this way, EDAN and Rollin' Justin can also be controlled easily and intuitively.

In everyday life, for example, EDAN with its robotic arm could help to significantly increase the independence of people with severe motor impairments. Rollin' Justin could perform pick-up and drop-off services in a care facility. For unusual or difficult tasks, trained caregivers from a control centre would be able to quickly assist those in need of care via HUG.

Focus on safe human-robot interaction

Robotic technologies have long been part of our everyday lives. Simple systems include vacuum cleaner robots or autonomous lawn mowing robots. The use of mobile service robots represents a next step. Equipped with arms and hands, these robots can react to their environment. These developments are possible because modern lightweight robot technology offers safe human-robot interaction. Classic industrial robot arms, such as those used in the automotive industry, must always be operated behind barriers for safety reasons. Modern lightweight robots, on the other hand, are sensitive to physical contact with humans or the environment.

The LBR Light-weight Robot developed at DLR almost 20 years ago represented an important milestone in this field. It can sense and control its interaction with the environment through joint torque sensors. This additional information makes it possible for the robot to behave in an actively compliant and thus safe manner, similar to a human arm – an essential requirement for use in the direct environment of humans.

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Katja Lenz

German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Corporate Communications
Linder Höhe, 51147 Cologne
Tel: +49 2203 601-5401

Jörn Vogel

German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Institut für Robotik und Mechatronik
Cognitive Robotics
Münchener Straße 20, 82234 Oberpfaffenhofen-Weßling