The room is bright and tidy, with a sink and microwave in one corner and a washer and dryer in another. A frying pan sits on the electric stove next to a couple of spatulas. A refrigerator hums. At the center of the room, PR2, a tall, sleek robot, renders a remarkable vision of the future. Researchers in the Living Laboratory at the UT Arlington Research Institute are developing a robot that can manage everyday tasks like washing dishes, doing laundry, even frying an egg.
“Someday these robots could be a fixture in homes, helping people do mundane, dirty, and dangerous tasks,” UTARI Executive Director Rick Lynch says. “They could greatly improve quality of life for so many people.”
Scientists at UT Arlington are advancing assistive living technologies that seek to revolutionize care for the elderly, disabled, and injured. The fast-growing industry aims to help people age comfortably while easing the strain that the aging population will have on the nation’s health care system.
By 2030, 72.1 million Americans will be over age 65, more than double the number in 2000. To provide adequate care, the country will need 70 percent more home assistance workers by 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. But filling those jobs is difficult because salaries are low. In Texas the average home health aide makes less than $21,000 a year.
Robots like PR2 could fill the gap, helping elderly people remain in their homes longer and providing a measure of self-sufficiency. Mike McNair, chief of UTARI’s robotics division, notes that they also could aid wounded veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Other UT Arlington projects include building robots that are smaller, more intelligent, and less expensive than their predecessors; designing homes capable of monitoring a person’s health, from gait and balance to sleep and blood pressure; and creating tools that will improve care for people with physical disabilities.
Home, Sweet Smart Home
A favorite coffee mug will record blood pressure. Sensors in the floor will monitor a person’s balance and report a fall. The refrigerator will track how many times it’s opened. This is Smart Care, a partnership between researchers in the College of Nursing and College of Engineering that aims to turn everyday household items into health care devices.
“The idea is to allow people to live independently for as long as possible,” says nursing Assistant Professor Kathryn Daniel, who leads the project. “Many people do not want to leave their homes and move into a retirement community. This provides a way of getting regular checkups without leaving the house.”
Professors are working with the Lakewood Village Retirement Community in Fort Worth to turn a one-bedroom dwelling into a model with advanced sensors and wireless communications. Eventually, the devices will send electronic updates or alerts to family members or health care providers. Residents may move into the test apartment later this year.
Additional features will include a mirror that captures a computer image of a person’s face, then analyzes skin color to check for healthy blood circulation; a bath mat that records weight to ensure a strong appetite; and a health-monitoring toilet.
Funded by a grant from the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, Smart Care could help reduce health care costs, increase efficiency for health care workers, and improve quality of life for older or physically disabled adults.
Once complete, Smart Care technology can be retrofitted into existing homes, says Manfred Huber, a computer science and engineering associate professor who’s working on the project along with computer science and engineering Professor Gergely Zaruba and Vice President for Research Carolyn Cason.
“As our population ages, more and more people are going to be looking for ways to remain at home,” Dr. Huber says. “We want to help them do just that.”
With advances in battlefield medicine and body armor, an unprecedented number of service members are surviving severe wounds and injuries. The Wounded Warrior Project reports that nearly 52,000 soldiers have endured physical injuries in conflicts since 2001 and about 320,000 suffer from traumatic brain injury.
Returning from combat can be difficult. To ease the transition, UTARI scientists are developing technology for two smart homes to be built by HEB Grocery and Operation Finally Home, a nonprofit that provides custom-built, mortgage-free houses for veterans and the widows and widowers of fallen soldiers. The homes are expected to be ready by the end of the year.
McNair says features could include automated temperature control and retractable cooktops, cabinets, and shelving, plus robots that open doors, vacuum floors, move objects, and take out the garbage.
“For people who have lost so much, this technology could help them regain a little bit of independence,” he says. “These homes will be specifically designed to meet the needs of wounded warriors and their families.”