The world of aged care is being offered a robotic hand by Zora, a cute, cuddly human-like robot.
Brightwater-Madeley Care Facility in Western Australia officially welcomed a new resident in November last year. Zora joins the other residents for things such as aerobics, playing memory games, singing, and reading books and newspapers. She can speak an impressive 19 languages, is only 57 cm tall, moves her body via a collection of brushed DC motors, and lasts about an hour on a single charge.
Zora is of course a NAO human-like robot, built by France’s Aldebaran and running on software by Qatar Belgium Modern Technologies (QBMT), and she’s a creative and increasingly popular solution to the challenges of aged care.
Brightwater is the first Australian facility to use Zora, who is increasingly in-demand among care facilities worldwide. Anitra Robertson, Chief Operating Officer at Surgical Realities, the Australia and New Zealand distributor for QBMT’s Zora, told create the residents refer to her as their friend.
The robot has been to 10 aged care facilities in WA and, according to Robertson, has been enthusiastically welcomed each time. Even residents not expected to warm to robot interaction have ended up participating.
“We believe this is the case because Zora can be programmed to work in with the unique daily routines of each care facility. Songs that each resident likes can be tailored for group sessions, so can books and dances,” Roberston explained.
“In group settings, I believe Zora injects excitement and stimulation that is otherwise not experienced.”
The robot is programmed to participate in basic activities. Its list of applications, run by facility employees via a tablet and the QBMT-designed Zora Portal, is growing, as is the number of Zora robots used worldwide.
According to the Belgian software company, there are over 200 robots in operation in Europe, and they are starting to be deployed in the US and Japan. What the robot can offer to the other care facility residents is expanding, and simple (but handy) functions like playing paper/rock/scissors, reciting what’s for dinner and converting text to voice are set to be joined by much more serious ones.
Starting out with Star Wars
The Belgians behind Zora have been best friends for 15 years and doing business together for 12.
Tommy Debliek and Fabrice Goffin had a business in Qatar providing smartphone hospitality software to hotels. They went out one night, discovering over several rounds that both shared a passion for the Star Wars movies.
“We started talking about R2D2 and C3PO, and what we loved about that; really nice conversation, and you know, two guys having a drink in a bar,” Debliek told create.
“We drank a lot of beer. At the end of the evening we were laughing and saying, well one day we’re going to build a robot and we’re going to take over the world.”
They’re working on taking over – or at least helping out – the world, and they didn’t even have to build their own robot.
After finding a suitable maker of platforms in 2012, Aldebaran, the duo focused on hospitality applications, before being asked by a professor at Ghent University to try programming the robots for hospitalised children.
“They have a hospital where children come in who have had an accident and trauma, and were not able to move certain parts of their body anymore because it really hurts them,” Debliek said.
“They tried it with Robot Zora and it works really well. Kids love the robot and they were cheering and, forgetting is not the correct word, but I don’t know what other word to use. They forgot their pain. They moved again. So, we went a little bit public with that, with the finding.”
Again by chance, they were nudged towards aged care. The first Zora application for assisting the elderly was in September 2013 in Ostend, Belgium. Zora is, incidentally, an acronym for Zorg Ouderen Revalidatie Animatie: Dutch for elderly care, rehabilitation, entertainment.
The NAO form factor – childlike in its size and motions – proved hugely popular with the elderly. Another benefit was not being too humanlike, adds Debliek, and it performs very well on the “Uncanny Valley” scale.
The effectiveness of the use for the NAO robots – which are put to uses from everything from robot soccer to greeting guests at hotels to assisting autistic children – has seen Debliek’s business spread internationally.
As an example of the pioneering nature of QBMT’s work, Debliek and Goffin were invited to Silicon Valley in 2014 to present on “How Belgium became the first country to introduce humanoid robots in healthcare”.
In the beginning, Zora was simply used to lead exercise lessons, a purpose which it is still very much used for. This frees up a physiotherapist to move around the room and provide individual assistance to those in the lesson, while the robot puts everyone else through their paces.
The set of apps has since grown to include things such as fall detection, with much more sophisticated ones currently being developed and tested. This includes assisting in epileptic seizures.
“We’re still researching it today the best that we can,” explained Debliek, adding that seizures can mean a 10-12 day hospital stint for observation and it’s hard for medical staff to be there on the spot from the precise time a seizure happens.
“If we could transfer everything of that into Zora, then people would not need to come to a hospital; Zora would be there,” Debliek said.
“Zora would be able to start asking the first questions to the patient. The patient can be monitored from a distance through the cameras of Zora. It would make the data coming from the epileptic seizure quicker to the hospital.”
The robot at Madeley is part of a 12-month study by Brightwater Care Group. The research will consider how Zora might be used as a tool to aid intergenerational engagement.
“Basically, the research is using Zora as a tool to bring high school students (volunteers) together with residents in aged care facilities, measuring wellbeing in an effort to offset cognitive decline,” Robertson said.
In Australia, as with the rest of the world, there’s a need to deal with an ageing population and its implications. Stretching the healthcare and aged care dollar further in the future is likely to involve the use of more robots.
Care providers can benefit from complementing human labour with robot assistance, making the worker more productive. Robertson sees robot assistance in repetitive, high-risk tasks as providing solutions for an industry needing new approaches. She cited the Robear by Japan’s Riken and Sumitomo Riko (used to gently lift patients and sparing the backs of caregivers) as an example.
“Robots, in a variety of forms, will need to play a role to ensure our ageing population receive the level of care by staff (who are in increasing demand) and environmental stimulation that we would all like them to have,” she said.