If the tasks of daily life become a burden, robot assistants at home or in nursing homes will be able to support us in the future. As part of the SMiLE project, scientists at the German Aerospace Center (DLR) have developed technologies that provide effective support in everyday life for people in need of care and people with disabilities. On 7 and 8 May in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, the project was presented to the Bavarian Minister of Economic Affairs, Franz Josef Pschierer, and to the public.
"SMiLE's vision is to help people lead a more fulfilled and independent life despite age-related or disease-related movement restrictions," explains Pascale Ehrenfreund. "SMiLE robots make use of cutting-edge digital technologies that have been developed for years in space research and tested with astronauts. Now they are benefiting the care of the elderly."
Bavaria's Economics Minister Franz Josef Pschierer: "Assistant robotics offers a wide range of possibilities for supporting nursing staff and people in need of care. The results of the projects presented are encouraging and show that practical solutions can be developed from the cooperation between research and companies".
The scientists of the DLR Institute for Robotics and Mechatronics are researching and testing the innovative robotics applications in the laboratory and are reconstructing hospital rooms or apartments suitable for the disabled.
Professor Alin Albu-Schäffer, Director of the Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics, stresses: "Together with Caritas in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, we are developing scenarios for robotic assistance in the future. The most important thing for us is to understand the expectations of patients and nursing staff in depth in order to address their most important needs. In Garmisch-Partenkirchen, with the support of the community, the Bavarian Ministry of Economic Affairs and a private foundation, a unique environment is currently being created to create the high-tech care of the future".
Independent living despite growing bottlenecks in care provision
Robotic caregivers cannot and must not replace human attention and existing care services, but should above all provide relief for caregivers with a high quality of care. In this way they can make a decisive contribution to improving the quality of life of the people concerned and to comfortable communication with relatives and helpers. "A large target group of the project is the increasing number of elderly, single people who wish to lead an independent life in their own home for longer. Many of them don't want to employ a permanent assistant or nurse or can't afford them in the first place", explains Professor Albu-Schäffer.
Georg Falterbaum, CEO of the Caritas Association for Munich and Upper Bavaria: "We like to open the doors to new technologies if they relieve the strain on our nursing staff, help people and are ethically justifiable. Assistance systems that support our specialist staff are just one example of how digitization is changing everyday social work. Of course, care will always remain analogous. But technical innovations that support our skilled personnel in their work also contribute to the high quality of care".
SMiLE robots are capable of allowing people and robots to interact safely with each other and close the ever-increasing gap in nursing care. For this purpose, they use real-time 3D image processing for environmental and person recognition and for mobile applications.
The SMiLE Robot Team: Home Assistant Justin and Wheelchair Assistant EDAN
The SMiLE project demonstrates two central scenarios: The two-armed, mobile home assistance robot Rollin' Justin will serve as support for elderly people with moderate mobility impairments. It can enable a self-determined life within one's own four walls. The EDAN wheelchair assistant enables people with severe motor impairments to perform essential daily tasks semi-automatically by means of electromyographic (measurement of remaining muscle activity) control.
In both cases, users can rely on the support of their relatives, who control the robots via standard communication devices such as smartphones and tablets. In addition, they can also call on professional help via tele-operation (remote control) from a care control centre, connected via effective force feedback devices. The methods used have already been extensively tested in space travel. European, American and Russian astronauts have used this technology, developed in Germany, to control robots in various application scenarios from the International Space Station.