Vancouver Sun: Robot lends people with disabilities a helping arm

Aether enters the living room and seems to greet the two people sitting there, spinning several times before gliding toward the kitchen in search of a doughnut.

The robot, which is being tested at several Lower Mainland group homes for people with developmental disabilities, is a hit with both residents and staff, and could eventually change the way society cares for people with disabilities.

“The problem facing organizations looking for caregivers is that there are fewer and fewer people willing to take that job and, as the population ages, more and more people needing care,” said Alanna Hendren, executive director of the Developmental Disabilities Association. “We are always fighting to find staff.”

That prompted Hendren and her colleagues to look to the tech sector for solutions, which led to the exciting — and perhaps a little frightening — idea that a robot could help ease the workload for staff by performing simple tasks, which might even include socializing with residents.

“We would never want to eliminate human contact,” said Hendren. She was quick to stress, as was everyone Postmedia interviewed about the project, that the robot would be more like a concierge than a companion.

“Think of the potential: The robot knows your schedule and it knows your goals and dreams and family and taste in music, and it’s around at your command to help you live your life.”

Work on Aether, a “collaborative service robot,” began in June 2015, bringing software developers with Vancouver-based JDQ Systems together with post-doctoral students at UBC and SFU funded by Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization that co-ordinates internships connecting students and companies.

The three-year project is coming to the end of its second year, and researchers are working on the robot’s autonomous navigation system, teaching it to make its way through Developmental Disabilities Association group homes on its own, avoiding unexpected obstacles, said Sina Radmard, Mitacs post-doctoral fellow at UBC. The robot will rely on complex mapping software.

Aether will also be able to do client monitoring — for example, helping a caregiver to be aware of a client’s movements when they are busy giving another client a bath. Equipped with smoke alarms, technology to detect falls and seizures, and the ability to turn lights on and off, the robot will perform “mundane tasks to free up the human caregivers to do what they do best,” explained JDQ president Jon Morris.

Aether will also be able to access residents’ schedules and basic information in order to initiate conversations.

“If Aether sees that Carol is going swimming on Saturday, it can start up a conversation about that,” said Morris. That can help reduce residents’ anxiety about upcoming events and prompt them to get ready to go. The robot can also ask if Carol would like a HandyDart bus called to get her there.

Aether will also respond to staff commands and do things like find a resident to tell them it’s time to come for dinner.

Privacy and safety are top priorities for the researchers developing the robot.

“This is not going to lead us to the apocalyptic scenarios we see in the movies,” said Radmard. “We’re taking a user-centred approach. From the earliest stage, the needs and demands of the user has been the focus.”

The researchers are also collaborating with ethics experts in the field of robotics.

Morris said he hopes to have a working prototype by next June. Right now, Aether visits DDA group homes about once a week for testing with staff and residents.

It is hoped that the technology could someday be expanded to elder care, both at home and in assisted-living facilities, where finding caregivers is a continual challenge.

“I think this has the potential to lead us in a new direction,” said Hendren. “My dream is that it would be affordable enough for families that care for people with disabilities. That it could be an extension of them when they’re not able to be there at all times.”

By: Glenda Luymes