Richmond News: Robot designed to help seniors at home

A new “resident” has brought laughter into a group home of seniors with developmental disabilities on Camsell Street.

“Aether, what time is it?”

“It is 1:46.”

Aether, you see, is a first-of-its-kind service robot designed to help senior residents live independently, while giving support staff an extra set of eyes at seniors’ homes.

Developed by a Vancouver firm in partnership with researchers at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University, and non-profit organization Mitacs, the robot is now being tested at Camsell House, a Richmond seniors’ assisted living home operated by the Developmental Disabilities Association (DDA).

“Aether is not intended to replace group home staff,” said Danielle White, DDA director of residential services, “but to provide extra help by serving as a ‘smart’ assistant.”

Ultimately, the robot’s tasks will include detecting falls or seizures, turning lights on and off, giving medication reminders or prompting residents to do chores, according to White.

The service robot can also help seniors who live at home by monitoring their health and informing their loved ones in emergencies, according to Jon Morris, president of JDQ Systems.

“With the help of the robot, seniors can live at home with their families longer before having to move to a seniors’ home,” he said.

Currently, Aether is capable of speaking, following orders and moving from room to room. Developers are still perfecting Aether’s navigational and recognition skills, enabling it to “see” and “hear.”

“Soon it will be able to recognize the faces and voices of the residents in the house,” said Morris.

Carol Lavorato, a Camsell House resident who is providing feedback to help with its design, has nothing but positive feedback.

“I love the robot because it’s going to help me one day, and it makes me laugh,” said Lavorato.

Developers have connected Microsoft’s Office 365 Calendars to DDA’s Alchemist program. This helps manage residents’ personal goals and individual service plans, explained Morris.

“When a robot knows your personal calendar, it interacts with you better socially. Instead of waiting for you to ask a question, it initiates the conversation,” said Morris.

“Aether will also be able to capture and record resident responses. If Aether detects that a resident repeatedly shows interest in a specific activity such as swimming or bowling, for example, home care staff can be informed and help make it happen.”

With a working prototype and commercialization plan scheduled to be ready by June 2018, Aether’s presence is already making a difference in the group home, said White.

“We have a gentleman who came to us 35 years ago with Down syndrome who’s now very passive and falls asleep most of the time,” she said. “When the robot came into his room, he sat up and started to giggle. That’s when we said, ‘Bingo, we’re onto something’.”