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Populations in many industrialised countries are ageing: life expectancy is rising on the one hand, while ever fewer children are being born on the other. The average age in Germany today is 46. By way of comparison, the average age in African countries is 19.5. The older a person becomes, the greater their risk of becoming ill and reliant on help. They are also increasingly likely to suffer a stroke. Patients have to undergo intensive physiotherapy to get back on their feet after a stroke – a situation in which service robots are just the thing.
Rehab for stroke patients
This at least was the opinion of a group of scientists, engineers and doctors from Ilmenau in the state of Thuringia. In 2013, the Neuroinformatics and Robotics Lab at Ilmenau University of Technology teamed up with Metralabs, a local company specialised in service robots, and a hospital with the aim of designing an assistant for mobility and orientation training for stroke patients. The result is ROREAS (only in German), the Robotic Rehab Assistant. Developed with the support of the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, it has just passed its first practical test with flying colours.
Infinitely patient and always polite
After a stroke, patients often suffer from paralysis and sensory disturbances in the arms and legs, as well as in the face. It takes months of training for them to be able to walk confidently again. The more regularly and intensively patients begin this training while still at hospital, the more mobile they will be when discharged. The advantage of ROREAS is that it improves confidence and orientation in patients who are practising walking around the hospital corridors. This helps in particular to motivate those patients who are lacking in confidence and would not have dared to embark on mobility exercises unsupervised.
Operation of the automatic trainer is via a screen that ROREAS carries around with it like a tablet and is not only easy, but also designed to be suitable also for patients who are suffering from visual impairment or other sensory disorders as a result of a stroke. The rehab robot adapts to the precise needs of each individual patient, selecting shorter or longer walks according to the patient’s fitness level. The route is displayed on the screen so that the patient always knows how far they have left to go and where they will have a chance to sit down and take a rest. If the patient needs a break, the assistant waits patiently. At the end of the exercise, the patient’s loyal companion displays the results and thanks the patient.
Many people could profit
To avoid collisions with other people and equipment in the hospital’s narrow corridors, the service robot was equipped with highly sensitive sensors that allow it to recognise all kinds of different objects and react quickly. The walking frames used by patients posed a particular challenge for the designers. “It is already hard enough for a robot to reliably recognise a human being. A human with a walking aid is something entirely new in terms of robotics”, says Professor Horst-Michael Groß from TU Ilmenau. It also takes patients a little while to get used to their new companion in many cases. After a short period of familiarisation, however, most feel very much at ease by the side of their robot friend. In future, this could well solve one central problem in Western societies.