Mini robot vacuums are one thing, but larger robots may soon become a part of everyday life for the elderly, performing tasks that could help delay the dreaded move of loved ones to a nursing home or assisted living facility. Researchers and robotics companies worldwide are designing prototypes to provide automated assistance to the elderly at home, targeting a market that promises to grow as people live longer.

"Most elders prefer to stay at home, and families prefer that as long as possible," says Karen Robinson, professor and executive director of the Volunteer Caregivers Program at University of Louisville School of Nursing in Kentucky.

The idea is to use robots, resembling anything from lunch carts to human companions, to assist seniors and the homebound with day-to-day tasks as well as communications with family members via social networking, videoconferencing and the Web. For this to work the interface with the robot must be intuitive, and robot-makers must allay any misgivings that the elderly might have about relying on new technology to watch over them.

One of the less threatening approaches so far is called Kompaï, which resembles a plastic kiosk on training wheels. This robot, from France-based Robosoft, features a touch-screen display on an easel and a bowling ball–size white head with a "face". Although the face is in place currently just for emotional comfort, company CEO Vincent Dupourque says future versions will light up and show expressions.

The vision for Kompaï is as follows: Family members would call the robot via Skype. The robot would then use ultrasonic sensors to detect the location of the person being called and navigate to that person, who answers the Skype videoconference call via Kompaï's multitouch tablet PC and Webcam. Kompaï could likewise be used as an interface to Facebook, MySpace or some other social network. Interactive speech recognition would be available to help elderly or otherwise dependent people access the Internet using a simple graphic and tactile interface. (See a video of Robosoft's Kompaï field trials here.)

Kompaï could also store a person's daily schedule and shopping lists, and access online calendars or weather. Robosoft will test the Kompaï this year in hospitals, geriatric centers and homes in France, Hungary and Austria to see how the technology is accepted, Dupourque says. If all goes well, he expects a commercial product within two years.

Several research groups are testing Kompaï, including MOBISERVE, a collaborative effort by nine organizations from seven countries to develop technology to support independent living for the elderly. In addition to Kompaï, MOBISERVE works on optical recognition, wearable health-monitors, and smart home automation and communication. The University of West of England Bristol and Netherlands-based Smart Homes are two organizations within MOBISERVE testing the Kompaï.

Robosoft is looking to partner with companies that make wireless physiological sensors worn by a robot's owner that could communicate blood pressure, pulse, body temperature and other data via Bluetooth to the robot, which would then relay that information to the person's doctor. Dupourque says it is unclear whether such sensors currently exist or would have to be customized to work with the Robosoft unit. Kompaï's software architecture is open source and based on the Microsoft Robotic Developer Studio (MRDS) visual programming environment. "The idea behind it is to make easier customization of the robot's behaviors," Dupourque adds.

Conyers, Ga.–based GeckoSystems recently began in-home testing of its CareBot robots designed to help the elderly, says R. Martin Spencer, president and CEO. The latest model is a cross between Darth Vader and a Mrs. Butterworth's syrup bottle (both on wheels).* The CareBot allows seniors to stay in their homes (rather than an assisted-living facility) while reducing isolation by initiating videoconferencing sessions with family members. It also communicates reminders about daily tasks and allows the user to access Web tools on the robot's touch-screen.

*Correction (6/22/10): This article originally attributed this description to GeckoSystems's R. Martin Spencer.

The CareBot prototype runs five to 12 software-based GeckoSavant artificial intelligence (AI) engines on netbook-size PCs, Spencer says. These engines are controlled by GeckoSuper, a piece of software that manages CareBot's AI functions like a conductor in an orchestra. "We have multiple computers running tens of thousands of lines of software running hundreds of sensors and the locomotion system," Spencer says.

GeckoSavant relies on "sensor fusion," a combination of multiple sensor systems such as vision and hearing, to maintain awareness of its surroundings. The robot's GeckoTrak software senses body heat, identifies colors, and uses sonar and infrared range finders to monitor a person's movements in the home. GeckoScheduler software can be used to remind the person in its care to walk the dog or turn on the TV to catch a particular program. (See a video of a CareBot in action here.)

Like Robosoft, Gecko also designed its robot to connect with third-party medical monitoring systems that measure blood pressure and sugar, pulse rate, and other medical information, which it sends to physicians via the Internet. Setting up a family member with a CareBot will not be cheap: Spencer expects his company's robots to cost between $10,000 and $20,000. As for Kompaï, Dupourque estimates R&D versions cost about $12,000 to $19,000 (depending on the configuration), and targets around $6,000 at the mass-production stage.

Beyond Roomba
Other robot-makers expect to join the fray eventually. iRobot, the Bedford, Mass., company best known for its Roomba robotic vacuum cleaners, says it is in the "early exploratory phase" of considering an elder care product. iRobot CEO Colin Angle demonstrated his company's bomb disposal robot at TED MED last fall. He explained to Scientific American how this basic design (wheels or tracks over legs—a preference shared by iRobot, Robosoft and Gecko) might be applied to elder care: "Legs are very complex when you could use wheels or tracks and get the same benefit with a more practical design," Angle says.

One of the many hurdles for these futuristic caretakers is acceptance. Dupourque thinks elderly people using PCs or mobile phones will similarly embrace robots in their homes. University of Louisville's Robinson takes a longer view and expects it will take another 20 or years or so, when baby boomers are in their 80s, for the robots to be widely accepted in seniors' homes.

"This technology is going to be very important as the baby boomers age, as we have this explosion of elder care that is going to be needed in the future," she says. "I think it will allow elders to remain living independently much longer."