Can you imagine kids having fun at hospital where they are spending weeks or months? Yes, that is happening in Lisbon, thanks to Little Casper robot.

Two Little Casper buddies

This is a guest blog post written by Pedro U. Lima and João Sequeira, MOnarCH Project Coordinator

The MOnarCH project (“Multi-Robot Cognitive Systems Operating in Hospitals”), funded by the EC, focuses on social robotics using networked heterogeneous robots and sensors to entertain and educate children, staff, and visitors at the pediatric infirmary in the Portuguese Oncology Institute at Lisbon (IPOL), Portugal.

MOnarCH started in February 2013 and will finish on 31 March 2016. During the project's lifetime, the Portuguese SME IDMind built 14 robots which are being used in the laboratories of several academic partners in Europe: Orebro University, EPFL, Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, University of Amsterdam and IST-ID (the project Coordinator). One additional SME – SelfTech – was responsible for the project software.

Over the past 3 years, the MOnarCH team worked on fundamental concepts regarding the integration of robots in social spaces, in this case, the pediatric ward of an oncological hospital in Lisbon, Portugal.

One mobile robot is now able to live in the hospital and play with the children as part of its own routine.

The hospital environment is highly regulated, but still has multiple challenging uncertainties and dynamics that can change very fast. For exemple, patients can have a large range of medical conditions that constrain their activity levels and hence the way they interact with the robot. Setting up a robot for such an environment requires extensive observations by the project team and high flexibility while developing/adapting technologies. For instance, if most of the children are in isolation, having the robot wandering around may be a disturbing factor, as they wouldn't be allowed to interact with it. We have used off-the-shelf and state-of-the-art technologies for the vision-based detection and tracking of people (through a camera network that wirelessly communicates with the mobile robot), the human-robot interaction components, and the management of the robot behaviors. Detecting that too many children are in isolation just using imaging techniques is a challenging issue.

We extended off-the-shelf robot navigation techniques and made them more robust. These are now the backbone of the mobile robot autonomy. Multiple behaviors run concurrently in the robot and activate human-robot interactions. For example, the robot may be moving between two points and simultaneously searching for known people. These behaviors suggest a personality for the robot and the permanent challenge is to make it compatible with the social environment and rules at the hospital. Roughly speaking, the robot acts as the aid of a social assistant staff member. Children often follow the robot when it wanders around in the Pediatrics ward, rising their activity level. This is commonly seen as positive from a medical perspective.

People in the hospital have developed a relationship with Little Casper (the robot's nickname). They greet and touch the robot as if it were an old acquaintance. Kids search for Little Casper even when it is sleeping (charging the batteries) – and snoring!

We have been disseminating the results to academic and industrial stakeholders and to the citizens in general, to promote awareness of the work done and its relevance for Europeans.

The MOnarCH presence in dissemination events had the highest impact during the ICT 2015 exhibition in Lisbon, 20-22 October. The project had a joint booth with another FP7 Research project led by ISR/IST, RoCKIn (“Robot Competitions Kick Innovation in Cognitive Systems and Robotics”). The booth won the Exhibition prize for the Transform area. On the top of that, the booth was one of the few selected for visits by distinguished guests (Portugal’s President and Minister of Education, Commissioners Oettinger and Moedas, and DG CONNECT Director Roberto Viola).

An EuroNews team visited Lisbon recently to videotape the MOnarCH robot system in action at IPOL and IST, and has broadcasted a video on its Futuris show. You can watch it online

If you want to ask questions about the MOnarCH project, or simply to express your opinion about our project, just send an email to the authors or tweet @monarch_fp7!