Companion robots will improve elderly people's quality of life in smart homes

Derio 15 April 2009The Tecnalia Health and Quality of Life Unit is taking part in the Companionable project, the aim of which is to contribute to the enhancement of the quality of life of elderly and disabled persons using robotised solutions designed to operate in intelligent homes. The initiative, part of the European Union 7th Framework Programme, combines for the first time the use of robots in intelligent domestic environments, with the goal of creating a companion that assists people in their own home and helps them to be independent in their everyday lives. Amongst other aspects, this tool provides a control for recognising emotional states, social and health services support and for videoconferencing with family members or professional care providers.


The main lines of research of Companionable involve the development of technologies to create a system that is conscious of its surroundings, with networks of sensors and communications, and the development and design of a mobile robot for therapeutic treatment and care support. The project has set itself the goal of developing a system which is aware of the presence of persons within an intelligent and domotic household, and which interacts with them in a natural and intuitive form.

This system includes the detection and monitoring of persons using various types of sensors, such as vision, sound and measurements of distance, and their corresponding signal fusion processes; as well as the observation of persons, the recognition of their emotional state and the identification of normal and exceptional behaviour. Likewise, it integrates canals of haptic-type communication (tactile screen) and more natural ones, such as dialogue, facial expression or body movements. The environment-aware system has to have, likewise, recognition of verbal and non-verbal instructions, as well as processes of cognitive stimulation.

The technologies to develop this system include the development of a system prototype in order to record emotions using audiovisual means - an essential component for intelligent dialogue and for cognitive stimulation between the care system and the patient. The environment-aware system has to integrate the functions of the service, these being, amongst others, support for social health care services, management of daily tasks, videoconferencing with family members or professional care providers and the remote control of the mobile robot by authorised persons. All the technologies of the environment-aware system will provide the wherewithal for the observation and monitoring of the elderly person and his or her activities within the domestic environment, and will have an easy-to-use and natural interface for the person and robot to interact.

As regards the creation of sensor and communications networks, the Companionable partners are investigating techniques for the interaction of the assisted person with the robot and, in a remote control manner, with his or her external carers. These techniques involve adaptation of already existing portable sensors to identify the state of health of the user; the design of communications protocols, data gathering and methodologies for signal analysis; and the development of interfaces for external carers and technical services' providers.

The prototype of the Companionable project mobile robot will also have a touch screen together with an avatar-like robot face, designed to facilitate person-robot interaction and will be designed to avoid both static and dynamic objects. To this end, special emphasis is being put on the development of algorithms for the automatic modelling of the external environment of the robot, this updating being ongoing, as well as on methods for programming movement trajectories and control.

Finally, the project involves the design and development of therapeutic treatment and assistance/care in daily life. In concrete, the daily life of the elderly or disabled persons is managed, content for their cognitive stimulation generated, reminders to take prescribed medication given and data on the state of their health analysed. In order to maintain the persons under care in contact with their environment, audiovisual communications with family members and care providers will be established.

All the techniques investigated in the Companionable initiative will enable elderly people to increase their independence and to stay a longer part of their lives in their own homes while being able to look after themselves. In the case of Spain, a survey undertaken by the Centro de Investigaciones Científicas (CIS) revealed that more than 80 percent of elderly persons over 65 prefer to stay in their own homes, even when they need help.

The Tecnalia Health and Quality of Life Unit is carrying out a number of technical initiatives within Companionable, notable amongst which is the viability of the monitoring of sensors for everyday life (Life Style Monitoring, LSM). These sensors record the activities and routines of the life of the user in his or her home, by means of the reading of various domestic devices.

The function of the LSM is to learn and memorise the habits of persons, thanks to a passive monitoring of the domestic environment obtained from sensors and other apparatus. In this way, sensors recognise situations that are out of the habitual routine of the user. Such deviations from the regular habits can be interpreted as symptoms of a crisis or as problems related to health, in which case an alert can be activated which is directed at a carer or a family member.

Another focus of this Tecnalia work involves person-robot interaction. The goal is to generate a simple and intuitive relationship between person and machine. In this sense, this technological centre is developing a "robotic body language" and a "robotic facial expression" in order to communicate, in a non-verbal manner, the internal state of the robot. The Tecnalia Health and Quality of Life Unit is carrying out a fundamental role in interfacing with the touch screen of the robot - the principal means of interaction between user and machine. Current work involves designing a device that is user-friendly, easy-to-understand and adapted to all the needs of the elderly.

Tecnalia is participating in the development of the Companionable project, in which 18 European partners from seven countries are taking part. Project leader is the University of Reading, United Kingdom, the others being the Tecnalia Health and Quality of Life Unit, the Ingema Fundación, the University of La Coruña and Sabia - all based in Spain; the Hospital Broca, Legrand, ESIEE, Esigetel, GET, d'Evry University (IBISC) from France; the Austrian Research Centres, AKG and CURE from Austria; Lab-in-Ham in Belgium; Smart-Homes from The Netherlands; and the Ilmenau University and Metralabs from Germany. The project is due to finish in 2012.

Source: Tecnalia Health and Quality of Life Unit

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