Jamie Morton

Jamie Morton is science reporter at the NZ Herald.

Robots whirr into elderly care

NZ researchers offered a grant to link up with Japan on smart projects for robotics to help the aged

Auckland's Selwyn Village residents trialled the HealthBots now permanently deployed at Gore.
Auckland's Selwyn Village residents trialled the HealthBots now permanently deployed at Gore.

A future where our elderly have faithful robot servants to look after them might be closer than we think, with the Government offering researchers new cash to push the concept forward.

The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has offered researchers a grant to link up with Japan on smart projects for robotics and "human assistive devices" for elderly care.

Japan might lead the world in such advances, but New Zealand has already taken the first steps toward a future of robot helpers.

Disney-like HealthBots able to take patients' heart rates and remind them to take their medication were last year deployed to help the elderly in Gore.

MBIE's international relationships manager Karla Falloon told the Weekend Herald that the call for proposals was an opportunity for boosting research and development between New Zealand and Japan.

Kiwi researchers applying for the funding would have to link up with research organisations in Japan, and show their projects had commercial potential.

Japan, famous for its pioneering in robotics, has trialled a range of robots and technology to help the elderly and infirm, from home robots to a wearable health monitor that constantly checks heart rates and temperature.

Ms Falloon said Japan, like New Zealand, was faced with an ageing society, and the country had put increased emphasis and funding toward robots in addressing the issue.

While New Zealand had a niche expertise in software and mechanical engineering in the human robotics area, Japan was strong on capability with hardware, she said.

The HealthBots project, which MBIE also funded, combined hardware created in South Korea with software developed by Auckland University's commercialisation arm UniServices and other New Zealand companies.

Gore Health chief executive Karl Metzler said he'd received great feedback from patients and their families since introducing five small cute-looking iRobi robots and a larger robot named Charlie.

"Some of our older people absolutely bonded with them, and I think they've been a real source of company for them."

New Zealand Aged Care Association chief executive Martin Taylor said robots would certainly have a place in the sector in future.

"But nothing will ever replace the need for caring, empathetic person-to-person contact when the elderly are in a physically and emotionally complex time in their life," Mr Taylor said.


Buddy Bots

• Healthcare robots have been trialled in Auckland and are already being used in Gore, serving as faithful companions to elderly patients, especially those needing long-term chronic care.

• Among other tasks, the healthbots check blood pressure and heart rate, automatically transfer test data to clinicians and caregivers, monitor for falls, trundle around the room and provide some companionship.

• A new request for research proposals by the Government aims to push the concept further, teaming up with Japan, which has already trialled a range of robots to assist the elderly.

- NZ Herald

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