Senior Lecturer Chandimal Jayawardena has been working in the field of robotics his entire academic career, but it’s only recently that he thought about changing the way they look.
The field of Socially Assistive Robots is all about finding ways to make daily life easier for people, especially those who are disabled or elderly. “Around the world there is research in this area, but usually the objective is to build an artificial robotic agent to help people," he says.
But the research always has to overcome one important factor. The robots are foreign in the environment of the people for whom they’re designed, and users must first get comfortable with, and learn to use the robots. “You don’t know if any problems are because of the foreign nature of the robot, or if your features aren’t as useful as you think they are.”
When he started his most recent project, Jayawardena decided to approach it in a completely different way. “I decided to use an existing assistive device. Something already useful and already familiar to people. So I selected a wheelchair - since that is something commonly used - and I’ve connected it to a socially assistive companion robot. It can measure vital signs, offer medication management, help the person talk to friends and family, and also communicate with the person on the chair. The idea is to break down the barriers that are put in place when you add a strange object into a person’s environment.”
The software can be used on other common objects, for example a lazy boy chair, a walker, or a hospital bed, to enable patients to feel more comfortable and to better use the practical features of the technology. “I have been working in this field for about 10 years now and we have always tried to build new devices, and then tried to evaluate whether those things are useful to people. Now I am thinking differently; I don’t want to build strange creatures. We can embed the same functions into existing devices, and people will be more comfortable with them immediately.”