CBC News BC: Aether the robot a welcome addition to B.C. group home

The staff at the Richmond-based Camsell House group home is getting a little extra help from an interesting source: a robot named Aether.

The so-called “collaborative service robot” was designed and developed by Vancouver-based robotics firm JDQ Systems Inc., as well as researchers from the Developmental Disabilities Association, Mitacs, the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University.

Jon Morris, the president of JDQ Systems Inc., said his team focused on creating a robot that could independently navigate through the home, as well as answer voice commands.

“Aether responds to specific commands, can answer questions and become a friend,” he said.

The robot can help support staff do their job, he said, by being an extra set of eyes for staff and can detect falls or seizures, turning lights on or off, giving medication or prompting residents with their schedules.

Although the robot can speak and interact, as well as move autonomously, the team still has a year to go before the prototype is truly complete.

“At this point, the robot is kind of a skeleton of technology and components, and we have a team working through the Mitacs project which is examing the look and feel of the robot,” he added.

‘He’s very small and very cute and knows what he’s talking about’- Camsell House resident Carol Aborato on Aether

Morris says once that is complete, similar robots could be distributed to other group homes and the prototype could possibly find uses for the general population.

“Ultimately, with the aging population, we’re hoping that our robot will help people live at home and put off going into a [senior’s] home for a few more years,” he said.

Danielle White, the Developmental Disabilities Association’s director of residential services, says when the robot project was first proposed, it was controversial.

“Staff thought why is it going to be in there? To take our jobs? To spy on us?”

She says once she got the message out that the robot is a support and aid for the program, it was more warmly received.

“The robot is not going to push a wheelchair but the robot could be there to alert the staff if any safety issues have come up,” she said.

“It’ll alleviate the stress of the job.”

As for Camsell House residents like Carol Aborato, they are looking forward to spending more time with Aether.

“He’s very small and very cute and knows what he’s talking about,” she said.

“I like him. One day he’s gonna help me.”