A team at UPC creates an intelligent walker to assist the elderly and people undergoing medical rehabilitation

Barcelona 07 November 2008A team of researchers from the Departments of Software, Automatic Control, Strength of Mechanical Engineering, Materials and Structural Engineering at the Technical University of Catalonia (UPC), led by Ulises Cortés and Antonio B. Martínez, has designed an intelligent walker - i-Walker - that goes a step beyond conventional walkers as it can communicate with the user, think for itself and react to the environment. The device can understand a set of voice commands and can be activated by means of simple verbal instructions given by the user - e.g., "take me to the kitchen". To do this, it includes elements for independent movement and a personalized intelligent software agent.


This tool is based on intelligent multi-agent systems technology - personal agents or software systems that observe and interact with their surroundings independently, pro-actively and rationally and have the ability to learn and communicate. It adapts to the specific assistance requirements of the people who use it and enhances their autonomy by helping them to take decisions that are usually beyond their scope due to physical, mobility or cognitive obstacles imposed by aging or their illness.

The i-Walker can be used for medical rehabilitation as it can help in the recovery and strengthening of motor skills by allowing the amount of aid provided to the user to be adjusted under medical supervision. Parameters such as the effort made by the user in walking, the distance traveled and the calories burned during movement are recorded and measured by the walker. The system uses an accelerometer to detect possible falls, correct itineraries and turning angles and control braking.

The device is part of the European project "Supported Human Autonomy for Recovery and Enhancement of Cognitive and Motor Abilities Using Information Technologies" (SHARE-it), led by Ulises Cortés. The project is part of the Sixth Framework Programme and the Information Society Technologies programme, within the area of Ambient Assisted Living.

Universities, research centres, health care centres and companies from Spain, Italy, Germany and Romania are taking part in the project. They include UPC, the University of Malaga, the University of Bremen in Germany, Deutsches Forschungszentrum für Künstliche Intelligenz GmbH in Germany, the Ana Aslan International Academy of Aging in Romania, Fondazione Santa Lucia in Italy, Centro Assistenza Domiciliare Azienda Sanitaria Locale RM B in Italy and Telefónica Investigación y Desarrollo.

The main objective of the SHARE-it project is to contribute to developing a new generation of intelligent and semi-autonomous welfare technology systems that can be integrated in homes and other places such as hospitals and geriatric institutions. This is new technology that provides mobility support for people who require continuous assistance or monitoring to help them to live autonomously with the highest level of safety and comfort, in short, to increase their quality of life.

The technology includes systems for facilitating communication, intelligent behaviour and mobility support that are intuitive and can interpret the voice, sight, touch and gestures of the user. These systems can provide assistance to users in their daily activities and report their state of health to the people caring for them via monitoring and mobile systems.

As well as the intelligent walker, the SHARE-it project is also developing other welfare devices: a semi-autonomous wheelchair - Roland III - capable of operating both indoors and outdoors and an innovative semi-automatic platform - Spherik - based on a new type of spherical wheel designed for movement in small spaces.

The three mobile systems - walker, wheelchair and platform - can detect the position of the patient in the home and in other known environments such as hospitals and primary-care centres as they include a special monitoring system. They can also adapt their autonomy to the requirements of the user by means of a cognitive model based on interpretation of the information provided by the biosensors and on the person's disability profiles provided by a medical team. This allows them to provide the carers with continuous information on the user's state of health.

Welfare technology, particularly innovative technology for the elderly, is an emerging area of research in which there is a great need for innovation, especially considering that Spain will have the most elderly population on the planet by 2050 - 43 percent of the population over the age of 60. Currently, 32 percent of people in Spain over the age of 65 suffer from some kind of disability. The link between age and disability is becoming stronger because life expectancy is increasing. People are living longer thanks to advances in medicine, but there are also more people who have survived severe illnesses and who suffer from chronic disability.

Robotics, artificial intelligence and information and communication technology - such as that included in the intelligent walker developed by UPC - can compensate for the loss of sensory, motor and cognitive functions caused by the passage of time and by disease in the elderly. They can also help to reinforce and stimulate human skills and improve well-being in daily life.

Leslie Versweyveld

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