Having Zacharias, the robot, follow you around the house and telling you that you haven’t shut the fridge door, or that it’s dinner time but you still haven’t used the microwave, may not sound like an experience to look forward to when you’re old.
But sadly, the reality is the elderly are more and more often living alone. Worse, in Europe the proportion of elderly in the overall population is growing – as are the levels of loneliness.
The EU will change from having about four working-age people for every person aged over 65 years to two working-age people.
Unless family dynamics change – unless adult children or other family members move in with their elderly relatives – then robots may not be such a bad thing to ensuring they are not neglected.
Zacharias is also being developed to detect diseases as they develop, such as dementia or Parkinson’s disease, by noting changes in behaviour via different patterns of physical movement.
As a very sensitive robot he can track the movements and walking speeds of people around him.
“He has a 2D laser sensor that he uses to create a map of the surrounding environment,” robotics engineer Roman Navarro Garcia points out.
Any unusual data is automatically sent to the family or the person’s doctor to alert them.
The prototype is now in trials with volunteers, including Aggeliki who is 68 years old and lives alone in her home in Patras, in western Greece. She suffers from mild arthritis but otherwise her health is fine – for now.
It’s a huge challenge to design a robot that, very much like the elderly person it will care for, needs to be independent.
“The robot is constantly moving inside the user’s home; it is totally dynamic; it is not static. But homes themselves are also a very dynamic environment; things move, furniture changes places. There are obstacles, big or small,” Christos Panagiotoy, a Greek computer engineer involved in the project, explains.
In Athens researchers are working on ways to improve what they call “perception technologies” in the robot, to make it as unobtrusive and functional as possible.
And they also want to produce robots that are affordable.
“We are talking about developing a low cost robot. We want it to be able to easily adapt to different home environments or smart homes. And we want the robot to be user friendly, so it can be easily used by people without too much training,” project coordinator Vangelis Karkaletsis sums up the project's challenges.
The Radio project (Robots in assisted living environments: Unobtrusive, efficient, reliable and modular solutions for independent ageing) runs for 3 years until March 2018. It's total costs of 3.8 Million Euros are met by the EU.
A report on the project is featured on Futuris, the science programme of the pan-European television channel Euronews. It was shown on TV more than a dozen times until 11 June 2017 and can still be watched online:
Takeaway (0:52), short version of the video with music and English subtitles. No narration.