Service Robots Are Closer Than You Think

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Service Robots Are Closer Than You Think

They've been in use in factories for decades. But,  a new generation of robots is also at work today in the home.  Robots are minding children, caring for the elderly, and giving people baths or doses of medicine, as well as performing more basic tasks like cleaning floors and mowing lawns.

According to the International Federation of Robotics, sales of service robots, both professional and personal, reached 5.5 million in 2007 and continue to grow rapidly.  IFR estimates that by 2011 that number will exceed 10 million units.1 As is typical of all new technologies, the price is falling rapidly.  In fact, robots on average cost less than 10 percent of what they did in 1990.

While prices are falling, the robots are also becoming more valuable because they are capable of doing more.  They are particularly useful to the world's aging populations.

For example, European researchers, led by scientists and engineers at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, are designing an end-to-end system that includes robots within a smart home.  The goal is to make it possible for elderly people to live independently, at home and without full-time human caregivers, for far longer than otherwise would be possible.

Two of the robots for the smart home have already been delivered for testing.  Those robots communicate with each other and with alarms, reporting hardware, and software that contacts live operators if a problem arises.  The system also integrates with special clothing for the home's human occupants that monitors each wearer's vital signs.  The system also reminds people in the smart house when to eat or when to take medication.

The robots assist the elderly people to make phone calls, create shopping lists, and do other everyday tasks, such as retrieving items from high shelves or opening the curtains.

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Obviously, such robots have the potential to reduce caregiver labor costs dramatically.  But, what do today's caregivers think about them?  According to a study by the Norwegian Association of Local and Regional Authorities, nurses would welcome such technology in nursing homes and elder-care facilities.2 They are more than willing to delegate the responsibilities for bathing, feeding, and moving people.  They also like to see the robots wash clothes, clean rooms, and monitor a patient's health and safety.  By spending less time on these tasks, human caregivers could devote more personal attention to a patient's emotional needs...

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