Researchers in Japan have unveiled a robot that can lift a patient up to 80kg (176 lbs) off the floor and onto a wheelchair.
Developed by a joint team at RIKEN and Tokai Rubber Industries (TRI), the robot, nicknamed RIBA (Robot for Interactive Body Assistance) 2, uses high-precision tactile sensors and flexible motor controls to gently lift and transport patients from the floor or bed onto a wheelchair and vice versa. A human care-giver is still required to monitor and aid with embarking and disembarking the robot.
The robot frees care facility personnel of one of the most difficult and energy-consuming tasks that they are faced with roughly 40 times per day.
Shaped like a teddy bear, RIBA 2 is soft to the touch and responds to voice commands. It is more capable than its predecessor, RIBA (2009), which was the first robot able to lift a 61kg (134 lbs) patient from a bed to a wheelchair and back, but not from the floor.
RIBA 2 has new joints in its base and lower back to enable it to crouch down and lift a patient off a futon at floor level, the most physically strenuous task for care-givers. To accomplish this, it uses the first capacitance-type tactile sensors made entirely of rubber, say the researchers. These "Smart Rubber" sensors are printed in sheets and fitted onto the robot's arms and chest to provide high-precision tactile guidance and allow the robot to quickly detect a person's weight from touch alone.
Next for the team is to partner with nursing care facilities to test RIBA 2 and further tailor it to the needs of care-givers and their patients. They will also develop new applications in areas such as rehabilitation and take steps toward commercialization.
With an elderly population in need of nursing care projected to reach a staggering 5.69 million by 2015, Japan faces an urgent need for new approaches to assist care-giving personnel, giving RIBA 2, and robots like it a promising future.
Watch a video of RIBA 2 performing its tasks.