In the SMiLE project series, concepts and assistance applications are being developed to provide effective support in everyday life for both people with disabilities and people in need of care. The necessary technologies will be researched and brought to a level of maturity that will allow testing in realistic environments (e.g. in hospitals and age- or disabled-appropriate housing). The wheel-based, humanoid assistance robot Rollin' Justin, the wheelchair assistant EDAN and the haptic interaction device HUG are used in the project. The project series includes the SMiLE2gether project (July 2019 - June 2024), the SMILE project (June 2017 - Dec 2018) and the SmartAssist project (April 2016 - Feb 2018).
Robotic technologies are increasingly finding their way into everyday medical practice - well-known examples are modern leg or arm prostheses or automated laboratory diagnostics. The daVinci Robotic System has also been firmly established in urology for years and is used internationally, for example in prostateectomy. These rapid advances are possible because modern lightweight robot technology is leading to increasingly safe human-robot interaction. Classical industrial production robots, such as those used in the automotive industry, must always be used behind fences. The new systems, on the other hand, are significantly lighter and safer. An important pioneer in this area was the lightweight robot LBR, developed almost 20 years ago by the German Aerospace Center DLR. Using force and torque sensors, it can also detect and recognize how it interacts with its surroundings. This additional information enables the robot - similar to a human arm - to actively yield and thus behave safely; a basic requirement for use in the direct environment of humans.
Now the trend is also moving towards using robots as assistants in care. In Germany, the gap in supply caused by demographic change is causing serious problems. The need for care is already not sufficiently covered: almost three million people are dependent on outpatient or inpatient care - and this number will continue to rise. So while the number of people needing care is steadily increasing, people are also getting older than just a few decades ago. While a large proportion of nursing staff will retire in the next few years and may need nursing care themselves in the long term, training in nursing care is not currently an attractive career path for many young people. In future, robotic assistance systems could be used here to support nursing staff and thus relieve them. At the same time, the independence of caregivers in the outpatient sector could be massively increased, either with regard to everyday tasks or their mobility.
Scientists from the DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics are currently researching a solution. In the SMiLE project series (Service Robotics for People in Life Situations with Disabilities), they are working together with carers and people who are to be carers on how robotic support could be used in this area for people with disabilities. The research project is funded by the Bavarian State Ministry of Economics, Regional Development and Energy.
"The vision of SMiLE is to help people to lead a more fulfilling and independent life in spite of age- or disease-related movement restrictions", says institute director Alin Albu-Schäffer. "SMiLE robots use cutting-edge digital technologies that have been developed in space research for years and tested with astronauts. Now they can be used for care."
But which tasks can - and, above all, should - robots perform in the future? How can we ensure that people and their needs are always at the centre of technological development?
In order to answer these highly sensitive questions from a nursing, ethical and everyday practical point of view, the scientists want to work together with Caritas in Garmisch-Partenkirchen and the Catholic Foundation University in Munich on possible scenarios for robotic assistance in the future. DLR Institute Director Prof. Albu-Schäffer explains: "The most important thing for us is to have a profound understanding of the expectations of patients and nursing staff in order to identify their actual needs. There are many relatively simple activities that people who are not impaired do not even think about - and where such a system can greatly increase the independence of users.
It is clear to everyone involved that robotic nurses cannot and must not replace human attention and existing care services, but should above all provide relief for the nursing staff while maintaining a high quality of care. In this way they can make a decisive contribution to improving the quality of life of the people concerned and to comfortable communication with relatives and helpers.
Within the SMiLE project, various robotic nursing assistants will be used: The two-armed, mobile home assistance robot Rollin' Justin, for example, will serve as support for nursing staff, relatives and elderly people with moderate mobility restrictions. The humanoid robot is modelled on humans, and with its helping hands it could thus enable a more self-determined life in one's own four walls.
The wheelchair assistant EDAN comprises a robotic arm and robot hand, mounted on an electric wheelchair, which people with severe motor disabilities can control via muscle impulses. It can perform essential daily tasks semi-autonomously by electromyographic (measurement of remaining muscle activity) control, thus enabling even nearly paralyzed people to open doors, drive through them and press elevator buttons or serve drinks independently.
In both cases, users can rely on the support of relatives who can control the robots via common communication devices such as smartphones and tablets. In addition, they will be able to receive professional help via tele-operation from a care control center connected via effective force feedback devices - this is the vision. The methods used have already been extensively tested in space travel. For example, astronauts used this technology to control a robot in Oberpfaffenhofen from the International Space Station in a wide variety of experiments.
Robotic systems could thus provide valuable support in the future to cushion the social challenges of the coming decades. In the long term, this technology could also have other effects, for example on the training and job profile of caregivers. "We have developed an initial understanding of it so that we can now carry out the trials," says Albu-Schäffer. This makes it all the more important, in the DLR team's view, to intensively involve all those involved, such as caregivers, relatives, nursing staff, nursing facility operators, nursing trainers, or experts in the field of ethics, right from the development process.