Real-life Wall-E helps seniors

June 27, 2008 8:47:02 PM PDT
In the futuristic movie Wall-E, robots of the future can give people massages, cook for them, and clean up for them.

Think that technology is far-fetched? Think again.

There's U-Bot-5, a robot that can not only help with housework, but also check a person's vital signs, and call 9-1-1.

Roboticist Rod Grupen and his team at the University of Massachusetts designed U-Bot-5 to be a round-the-clock, in-home assistant for the elderly, in addition to giving its owner the ability to interact with people miles away.

"A family member, an EMT, or the family doctor, the grocer, the mailman or the pharmacist," say Grupen.

Someone could, over the internet, remotely control U-Bot for search for a parent who is not answering the phone.

It could also use a stethoscope and send those signals to a healthcare professional, or if the person is conscious, U-Bot could help perform physical examinations.

The U-Bot asks a patient, "Raise your arms like this?" and the volunteer responds.

Grupen, whose research is being funded by the National Science Foundation, the Army Research Office, and NASA's Human and Robotics Technology Program, explained in the journal "Autonomous Robots" that robots like this will also help family members care for their elderly relatives on a daily basis, even if they live in another state.

He explains, "If you could allow them to just poke in without, you know, with the ease of a telephone call--be able to move around the house, to be able to inspect that toilet that's overflowing and facilitate calling the plumber, just taking care of the loved one."

This experimental version of U-Bot still needs an operator but the researchers plan to give it capabilities like making its own decision to call 9-1-1.

Grupen's team plans to test U-Bot in nursing homes, and then in private homes.

And though it may never be given dancing abilities like Wall-E, U-Bot has other ways to make someone smile.