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Into the Arms of Technology

UT Arlington scientists are on the leading edge of assistive living research, designing smart homes and programming lifelike robots that could transform care for the elderly, disabled, and injured.
By Sarah Bahari
illustration by James Steinberg

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.”

PR2 Robot

Helping Hands
The PR2 robot can perform everyday tasks like pouring a glass of juice, doing laundry, and washing dishes.

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.”

Manfred Huber and Gergely Zaruba

Helping Hands
Manfred Huber, left, and Gergely Zaruba equip a floor with sensors to monitor walking patterns.

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.”

Veterans Assistance

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.”

Assistive technology will allow people to live independently for much longer than in previous generations.

Even a longtime staple of assistive living—the wheelchair—is getting a facelift. UTARI senior research scientist Jeongsik Shin is working with Philadelphia-based Humanistic Robotics Inc. to build a smart wheelchair that’s powered with a gaze. Users would wear 3-D eyeglasses embedded with a camera and GPS tracking capabilities. They would navigate the chair with their eyes and in some cases a voice command, a major improvement over motorized chairs typically operated with joysticks.

“Our smart wheelchair would give people a greater degree of autonomy,” Dr. Shin says. “This would increase quality of life for people who have lost the use of their arms or hands.”

Aging in Place

As the U.S. population ages, more people will live alone, a scenario that presents issues for the elderly, their families, and health care workers. The U.S. Administration on Aging estimates that 11.8 million people—roughly 28 percent of those over age 65—live by themselves. But those numbers increase with advanced age. For example, among women 75 and over, nearly half lived alone in 2012.

Scientists at UT Arlington’s Heracleia Human-Centered Computing Laboratory are designing computer technologies to monitor daily activities and alert caregivers when help is needed. Led by Fillia Makedon, Distinguished Professor of Computer Science and Engineering, researchers have set up a mock furnished apartment at Heracleia with sensors, robotics devices, and cameras.

Sensors on beds, TVs, the refrigerator, and medicine cabinets detect daily patterns. Anything unusual, such as an elderly person leaving the stove on or missing lunch, activates an alert.

Fillia Makedon

Fillia Makedon

“We can capture movement, sound, temperature, sleep patterns,” Dr. Makedon says. “We would know if someone falls or forgets to take his medication, does not get out of bed in the morning, or does not step into the kitchen for something to eat. A relative or a health care worker can keep tabs remotely.”

Ensuring patient privacy is crucial. Makedon says cameras would only be used if requested by the patient or health care provider, and the network and its data will be completely secure. She stresses that assistive technology doesn’t seek to replace human care but to direct resources and provide health care workers with the most accurate information.

“This is the future of aging,” she says. “Assistive technology will allow people to live independently for much longer than in previous generations. This will change people’s lives for the better.

A More Human Robot

Still, challenges remain. The biggest obstacle is the exorbitant cost of robots like PR2 and other assistive technology.

“We must figure out how to make robots more affordable,” Lynch says. “To be successful, they need to be within financial reach of the average family.”

They also must be more like humans and less like machines. Electrical engineering Associate Professor Dan Popa, who’s closely affiliated with UTARI, recently received a $1.35 million National Science Foundation grant to advance robots and robotic devices and improve prosthetics.

He leads a team of scientists to outfit robots like PR2 with sensitive, human-like skin and embed them with sensors that can perceive environment. For example, robots would feel touch, detect temperature, and better understand what humans want. The researchers are even trying to equip the machines with a more human-like strut.

“Robots have been around for a long time. But if we are going to push this technology into our living rooms, then they will need to be better at detecting human intent,” Dr. Popa says. “And most important, humans will need to feel safe and comfortable around them.”


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