A robot nurse under development by a University of Texas at Arlington electrical engineer is designed to free up time, that is currently spent by nurses and other healthcare providers, for more demanding tasks by performing routine duties such as sitting with a patient that is trying to get out of bed or walking a patient.
Associate Professor Dan Popa, of the UTA Electrical Engineering Department, was awarded a $999,946 National Science Foundation Partnerships for Innovation: Building Innovation Capacity (PFI:BIC) grant for his project entitled “Adaptive Robotic Nursing Assistants for Physical Tasks in Hospital Environments.”
The award abstract notes that Dr. Popa’s project aims to offer next-generation assistive robots to help on the activities of hospital-based registered nurses (RNs). The nearly three million registered nurses currently employed in the United States are the largest pool of healthcare providers in the country, and a technology that affects this large labor pool’s performance cannot fail to have a significant impact. The abstract projects that advancements in computer technology and robotics, computing hardware, sensing, and access to intelligent communication are poised for a breakthrough for practical robotics applications in fields like nursing, with robot assistants to become common, not only for healthcare professionals, but also for patients as well.
The University of Texas at Arlington project will focus on the generation of new design tools for configuring the software and hardware of adaptive robotic nursing assistants (ARNA) that will be specifically designed to help nurses in healthcare facilities with simple tasks like delivery of everyday lightweight objects (eg: medicine, medical wearable equipment), lift assistance, as well as some physical assistance with movement of heavier objects, such as gurneys, furniture, and patients themselves.
Design and engineering innovations resulting from insights gained in the execution of this project may also have great value down the road in deployment of products in broader consumer markets, such as in-home service and assistive robots, robots for assistance in public venues, and co-Robot manufacturing where humans work in close proximity to robot workers. Improved understanding of human-robot and nurse-robot interaction is anticipated to result in development of technology that will facilitate research breakthroughs and increase productivity and social acceptance of robotics, with the research also advancing understanding of the perceptual effects of robot design aesthetics and interfaces.
The proposed ARNA will be designed to navigate cluttered hospital wards and hallways, and be equipped with multi-modal skin sensors that can anticipate nurse intent and automate mundane low-level tasks, but also keep human nurses in the decision loop.
Modular and strong hardware are to be deployed in reconfigurable platforms specially designed for nurse physical assistance, with adaptive human-machine interfaces to play a key role, directly impacting robots’ ability to assist nurses in dynamic, unstructured environment. Learning algorithms will displace pre-programmed robot behaviors so that robots will be able to self-adapt to human preferences.
As noted above, two leading applications envisioned for robot feasibility evaluation are as patient sitters and walkers. The sitter robot will take vital sign measurements, evaluate risk from patient movement and pose, and provide continuous observation of patients and feedback to and from nurses. The walker robot will assist nurses and patients by providing partial balance support, helping navigate cluttered environments, and assist with medical equipment transportation.
The University of Texas at Arlington with its multidisciplinary departments including the College of Nursing, College of Engineering, and the University of Texas at Arlington Research Institute (UTARI), is the robot nurse project’s lead institution, with its primary industrial partners including Waltham Massachusetts-based QinetiQ-North America a large corporation specializing in unmanned systems, and RE2 Robotics of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, a Carnegie-Mellon University small business spinoff specializing in modular robotic manipulators that will contribute unique battle-tested hardware and systems engineering.
In-hospital testing and evaluation of the proposed robots will performed by nurse researchers at the University of Texas at Arlington College of Nursing and Texas Health Resources of Dallas-Fort Worth — one of the largest faith-based, nonprofit health systems in the United States. Dr. Popa will work with the UT Arlington College of Nursing and Health Innovation, Texas Health Resources and the UT Arlington Research Institute throughout the three-year project.
Clinical associate professor in the UT Arlington College of Nursing and Health Innovation, Deborah Behan, and Patricia Newcomb, a Texas Health Resources nurse scientist, are collaborating with Dr. Popa and the College of Engineering.
Professor Behan notes that nurses spend an inordinate amount of time just sitting with patients who are in danger of falling and hurting themselves. “We have to make sure patients are monitored or don’t get out of bed without help,” says Prof. Behan, who also is a nurse scientist for Texas Health Resources, in a release. “Why not have robots perform those tasks? The robot could alert the nurse if an emergency is about to occur.”
NSF program director Sara Nerlove observes that developing smart human-centered systems in healthcare has the potential to offer more efficient, effective and personalized care, with benefits for patients and health-care providers, noting: “What we learn in medical settings — for example, about robot-human interactions — could have implications for many other settings, ranging from factories to homes.
UT Arlington Research Institute executive director Mickey McCabe comments that this collaboration among colleges and UTARI speaks volumes about where the research world is going.
“You have to hear from nurses in the field about what they do, what is needed and what can be done before attempting to build a robot that would help nurses with tasks,” McCabe says. “Engineering can answer practical questions about how we care for patients. Dr. Popa’s robot will help meet those challenges. UTARI provides the equipment and collaborative lab space for the ideas to merge.”
The design process is expected to take a year and involve close collaboration with the two corporate partners. The project’s testing phase will take place at the UT Arlington Research Institute and UTA’s Smart Hospital. Once this phase is complete, the robot eventually will be tested in Texas Health Resources hospitals.
“We believe there is a big market for this kind of robot to assist nurses,” says Dr. Popa. “The robot isn’t designed to replace nurses, just to help make them more productive.” Prof. Behan adds that helping nurses lift patients would address the injuries nurses sustain in the workplace, noting “There are many times nurses injure their backs from lifting patients,” Behan said. “I would imagine that those injuries would decline if a robot could assist a patient in walking or to help prevent falling.”
Dr. Popa’s work on the robot nurses will be based on the existing PR2 and DR20 robot platforms at UTARI, but part of his goal is to make a nursing robot look more like a nurse and less like a machine.
The University of Texas at Arlington Texas Health Resources
National Science Foundation Partnerships for Innovation: Building Innovation Capacity (PFI:BIC)
The University of Texas at Arlington Research Institute
Texas Health Resources.