Bibbidi Bobbidi Bots: ASPIRE to improve lives of senior citizens

8/13/2015 David Robertson, CSL

The goal of ASPIRE is to develop co-robots that can assist the elderly with activities of daily living and other chores.

Written by David Robertson, CSL

Coordinated Science Lab researcher Naira Hovakimyan, a professor in Mechanical Science and Engineering, has received a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation for a project called “ASPIRE,” short for Automation Supporting Prolonged Independent Residence for the Elderly.

Naira Hovakimyan
Naira Hovakimyan
Naira Hovakimyan
The goal of ASPIRE is to develop co-robots that can assist the elderly with activities of daily living and other chores, allowing this population to live independently for longer and improve their quality of life.

As the Baby Boomer cohort ages, the elderly population in the United States is growing immensely. The Centers for Disease Control predicts that by 2030, the number of persons aged 65 years and older will reach 71 million, more than double the number -- 35 million -- of the same group in 2000. This exponential increase is expected to incite a rise in healthcare costs and nursing home expenditures as well as a shortage of space in retirement communities and assisted living homes.

“The idea is that if we get technologically equipped houses, people will most likely enjoy their independent life in their home as opposed to going to a nursing home, where things will be overstuffed and understaffed,” said Naira Hovakimyan, who is the principal investigator of the project and a researcher in the Beckman Institute.

Hovakimyan and her team of Illinois researchers Alex Kirlik (Computer Science), Dusan Stipanovic (Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering, CSL), Frances Wang (Psychology) and Amy LaViers (Mechanical Science and Enginering) are working in collaboration with Xiaofeng Wang at the University of South Carolina.

Hovakimyan said that the inspiration for ASPIRE came from the classic Disney film Cinderella.

Courtesy: Disney
Courtesy: Disney
Courtesy: Disney
“If you remember, Cinderella was being helped by mice and birds. So, we thought that if Cinderella could be helped by mice and birds, then ground robots and drones can help the elderly in their daily lives and secure independent aging at residences for longer periods,” she said.

For instance, through a very user-friendly interface of a smart phone or a tablet, an elderly person may get his/her medication reminder. With the push of a button, a miniature drone could fly to the shelf to retrieve the medication and serve it on a mobile ground robot to the patient. However, some elderly -- adults before the dawn of the Internet age -- harbor stigmas regarding robots and drones, says Hovakimyan, and are apprehensive about integrating them into their homes.

 “If I talk today to the elderly about bringing drones into their houses to fly to help them, they will be scared of it,” said Hovakimyan, who cites perceived safety versus actual safety as a hurdle to overcome in making ASPIRE a reality.

“We must have a soft, nice flying system,” she said, when asked about how the technology could be made to seem friendlier.

An understanding of psychology, human factors, engineering and computer science is pivotal in developing these robots and drones and how the public receives them.

To further address this concern, Hovakimyan is spearheading a project that will break ground on the design of Non-Intrusive, Collaborative, Empathetic, Robust (NICER) robots. The two-year project, funded by a $300,000 grant from the NSF, focuses on two key issues: how robots’ appearance and behavior influences humans’ perception of them, and how to design and control mobile robots to improve perceived safety and comfort of the people who would co-exist with them.

In the case of ASPIRE, to make the technology suitable for domestic use, it must be miniature to fit into small spaces and built out of soft, durable materials. Propellers in airborne robots must be quiet so as not to disturb users, and cameras will need to be panoramic to enable a holistic field of vision and improved flight control safety.

Research and testing will be primarily performed on the UIUC campus over the course of the next three years. Hovakimyan said that her team would utilize the virtual reality CAVE at Beckman Institute and the Coordinated Science Laboratory’s new Intelligent Robotics Lab. Experiments will measure biometrics, body movements and psychological processes, among other elements.

By the time the project reaches completion, persons 65 years and older won’t need special mice and birds or a fairy godmother to alleviate the trifling chores of everyday life. While ASPIRE may not be finished by the time the clock strikes midnight, Hovakimyan said to “stay tuned because it’s exciting to be in the field these days.”

Who needs Hollywood magic when some of the world’s brightest minds can make any technological dream a reality here at UIUC?

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This story was published August 13, 2015.