Tuesday, September 27

Meet Mr. Bah: the robot who catches Grandma before she falls

Researchers this week unveiled a new robot that can predict and catch elderly people before they fall – a potentially major development in caring for the world’s rapidly aging population.

The new device, which looks like a motorized wheelchair, has guardrails that reach up to a person’s hip and are fitted with sensors to judge when a person is beginning to lose their balance. Users attach themselves to a harness and when they begin to tip over, the robot snaps it into place to prevent them from falling.

The machine’s inventors, from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in Singapore, affectionately call the machine “Mr. Bah,” a replacement for his real name: the Mobile Robot Balance Assistant. The device has still needs regulatory approval in major markets like the United States, and faces significant funding challenges to get to market, but it should be available in two years, the researchers said.

“Mr. Bah” joins a growing number of technological advances for elderly care, including robots that clean homes and provide companionship and wearable devices that track key health metrics. The robot’s inventors say that their fall prevention robot is a crucial step forward, especially since falls can often result in serious injury or death.

“[Falls] are a big problem worldwide,” said Wei Tech Ang, the project’s principal investigator and executive director of the Rehabilitation Research Institute of Singapore (RRIS). “The intention was to help people move around the house without fear of falling.”

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According to the World Health Organization, falls are the second leading cause of death from unintentional injuries worldwide. In the United States, falls remain the leading cause of injury-related death among adults 65 and older, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ang became aware of this problem from personal experience. “My 85-year-old mom, she’s a frequent faller,” he said. “After his first fall about 10 years ago, I started having this idea of ​​creating a robot.”

Ang teamed up with researchers from NTU Singapore and Tan Tock Seng Hospital to create and pilot the robot. So far, the device has only been tested on 29 participants. These were patients with strokes, traumatic brain injuries and spinal cord injuries.

During the tests, which lasted three days per participant, the robot helped elderly people sit, stand and walk. No drops were recorded during the trials, the researchers said. (The results were announced this week.)

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The team’s goal is to gain regulatory approval for the device in major markets around the world, including the United States. They plan to release two versions of the robot. One is a hospital version, equipped with many high-end sensors and cameras that track an elderly person’s movements, and could cost around $20,000. The other is a home version, which would have fewer sensors and cameras or use lower quality cameras, and could cost between $3,000 and $4,000, Ang said.

But the team faces a daunting challenge. They need about $4 million in seed funding just to get the devices approved by regulatory agencies in places like the US, Europe, China and Singapore, Ang said. From there, they would need an additional $10-20 million to bring the device to market. “It’s terribly difficult here,” he said.

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If that happens, the researchers say, the effects could be significant and represent a way for robots to improve the lives of older people by giving them a sense of independence.

“One of [the] key strategies are to empower patients,” Karen Chua, co-developer of the mobility robot at NTU Medical School, said in a statement. “We want to make robotic therapies more sustainable and accessible in the community where our patients can live healthier, happier lives.”