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Does Our Future Depend on Elder Care Robots?

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Imagine a world in which our senior citizen population is taken care of not by humans, but by fully functional autonomous mobile robots.

Imagine these mobile robots, also known as elder care robots, come equipped with state-of-the-art navigation, sensory and perception systems that allows them to complete tasks as simple as picking up a remote control or retrieving a pill box, to actions as complicated as taking a person’s temperature or vital signs using sophisticated facial recognition technology.

Rest assured, this world in which robotic caregivers are looked upon to help with our world’s greying population is very much a reality. It’s not a question of if, but when.

Elder Care: An Issue of Supply and Demand

The idea behind elder care robotics has been around for years. Its relevancy, however, has become increasingly more apparent as the gap between the number of available caregivers and the world’s aging population continues to widen.

This population problem is already very real in countries like Japan, where there will be an estimated shortage of 1 million caregivers by 2025. The U.S. is facing a similar dilemma — as the percentage of people aged 65 or older is expected to rise to roughly 26% by 2050.

Compounding the problem is that the cost of elder care is becoming incomprehensible and uncontrollable. While elder-care expenses vary from state to state, a national snapshot shows that the annual median cost of a private room in a nursing home is $92,378, which reflects a 1.24% increase from 2015.

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This growing financial burden, coupled with the shortage in caregivers, proves the need to find a more efficient way to care for the world’s elderly population.

While younger generations up until now have been tasked with serving as caregivers, the rapid rate at which the world’s aging population is increasing is causing many researchers to ask: What happens when there are simply too many elderly people to take care of?

According to estimates by AARP, there are currently about seven people aged 45-64 to care for each person who is 80 or older. By 2030 that figure is expected to fall to only four. By 2050 there will be fewer than three caregivers for every person over the age of 80.

So how will the world solve this expected shortage of caregivers in the coming years?

Robots Are the Future of Elder Care

Researchers all around the world are proactively striving to help solve this problem and are independently working to create autonomous robots that are capable of performing similar, if not the exact same, tasks as caregivers.

But the industry is still evolving. Companies are still very much siloed from one another — left to focus on perfecting particular components of autonomous robots.

For example, companies like Jibo are leading the charge to integrate social robots into our home lives. Designed as an interactive companion and helper to families, Jibo is considered to be the “worlds first social robot for home.” However, Jibo is not a mobile robot, and lacks the complex physical and mechanical parts to truly serve as an elder care robot. It’s more of a social and emotional robot solution.

Vecna Robotics  meanwhile, is working on creating the “most powerful humanoid robot in the world” for military, healthcare and other commercial purposes. The Bear robot, which stands for Battlefield Extraction Assist Robot, is designed for military use, but its hydraulic systems and their high power density capabilities are considered prime for caregiving.

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Companies like Stanley Innovation are working on optimizing the mobility part of autonomous elder care robotics by creating mobile robotic platforms that are adaptable and scalable. Stanley’s solution represents a high power density, fielded propulsion system that has been tested to transportation standards and mass-produced for over a decade. What’s more, Stanley collaborates with Kinova Robotics, a leader in assistive robotics, to create an autonomous robotic solution with mobile manipulation capabilities.

While the research is already taking place, it’s clear that the only way elder care robots will become commonplace in society is if the government, as well as private investors, get involved in funding further research.

Investing in the Advancement of Elder Care Robotics

In Japan, for example, companies are leading the development of a humanoid solution called Carebots, which are specifically designed robots for elder care. The Japanese government is doing its part by reportedly subsidizing a large chunk of this research.

In the U.S., similar efforts to incentivize researchers are also taking place. Not only does the National Science Foundation invest in the development of service robots, but the National Institute of Health also has been known to fund robotic initiatives to improve health and quality of life — particularly elder care robotics projects that help increase mobility in elder patients.

In addition to the government, venture capitalists are also looking to invest in the elder care robotics industry. For instance, Jibo has reportedly earned $23 million to help advance its robotics initiatives. iRobot, the company behind the Roomba, has even started its own venture capital firm to further the investment in robotics research. iRobot chief executive, Colin Angle, said in a recent interview with TechCrunch that VCs are particularly interested in robotics manufacturers focusing on consumer uses and elder care.

What’s Next for Elder Care Robots?

While it’s not entirely certain what the future will hold in term of elder care robotics, ongoing industry trends indicate that future projects will involve robots capable of being interconnected with appliances and home automation, and that are able to use telepresence technology that allows loved ones to check in from afar.

Future elder care robots will also more than likely have the ability to take on medical diagnostics, as well as use facial recognition algorithms to determine how someone is feeling.

But despite all of this future capability, there still exists a dichotomy of things that robots can do way better than humans and things they simply cannot do at all. For instance, an elder care robot in the future may easily be able to find and retrieve a pill box from another room, however, without an excellent mobility system, it will be stopped dead in its tracks should it get caught on something along the way.

Collaboration and integration between researchers, private industry, investors, and the government will be key in the years to come.

If you have a project or idea that requires a more thorough understanding of autonomous robotics, contact us today. We would love to learn more about your project and discuss the solutions available from Stanley.

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