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Project Success Stories - Helping the elderly regain autonomy

Ageing is a natural progression of life. But often, as the body begins to give way to nature's advance, we find ourselves losing our ability to perform the simplest of tasks. An EU-funded project may have found a solution.
Project Success Stories - Helping the elderly regain autonomy
Over time, we will begin to lose sensory, motor, and cognitive functions. The simple act of going to the kitchen or climbing the stairs can be a struggle, and sometimes even an insurmountable obstacle. Lack of access translates into a lack of autonomy. Losing one's autonomy and independence is both a physical and a psychological exertion. Coupled with the strain on human resources to assist an expanding elderly population and a conversely shrinking work force, the importance of finding viable solutions to achieving greater autonomy is pressing.

To help address the problem, the EU-funded project SHARE-it ('Supported human autonomy for recovery and enhancement of cognitive and motor abilities using information technologies'), developed a novel technology that will aid 'elder patients preserve their autonomy and live in their preferred environment for a longer time.' This includes anyone who may be impaired. For many, home is where one finds peace of mind, where the body can relax, and heal. To provide those in need with a more flexible mobility regime helps unlock their independence and can potentially improve their well-being and quality of life.

Ambient intelligence

The innovative technology behind SHARE-it's research has succeeded in developing and integrating ambient intelligence (AML) systems and sensor devices into four different mobility platforms. AML is a systems technology that is able to observe and interact ― independently, proactively and rationally ― with its environment and those in need. While ambient intelligence has been around for some time, SHARE-it was able to get systems to also learn and adapt.

SHARE-it demonstrates how ambient intelligence can help elder citizens with cognitive and/or physical disabilities to better cope with daily activities, suggests Professor Ulises Cortés, the project coordinator.

The mobility platforms SHARE-it built include the Rolland IV, Carmen, Spherik, and i-Walker. All but the i-Walker are wheelchairs. Sensors, either worn on the user or placed in the area enable the platforms to make any necessary adjustments, locate and monitor the user.

The platforms function with traditional human/computer interfaces, such as a joystick or pad, or more sophisticated voice commands for those who are more severely impaired. Biometrical sensors in the platforms also monitor, for instance, the user's heart rate. This work was conducted under the supervision of Prof. Kerstin Schill at Bremen University.

The vehicles also supply data on the state of the hardware, navigation and route planning, as well as battery power levels. The platforms have to simultaneously process all the different input and execute complex decisions. To manage all these variables, SHARE-it developed a multi-agent system that provides so-called 'assistive services to the users.'

'From our side, SHARE-it represents an innovative approach to the treatment and support of our patients because it contains in a single instrument the answer for two problems: motor and cognitive. In fact, these two problems usually are treated separately,' says Dr Roberta Annicchiarico, SHARE-it's medical coordinator.

The research team tested its devices with actual patients in real settings. For instance, the Casa Agevole is a house entirely fitted with sensors, and was used as a staging ground for experiments and tests. The house is also designed so that anyone, regardless of their physical condition, can have easy access. The positive results fuelled SHARE-it's overall objective to help develop a new generation of intelligent and semi-autonomous welfare technology integrated into homes, hospitals, geriatric institutions and other places. Welfare technology is an emerging area of research to help the elderly and physically impaired.

i-Walker

At first glance, the i-Walker looks like any conventional walker. But a closer inspection will reveal engines, sensors and several wires wrapped neatly by a central unit at its base. This central unit conceals a technology that not only communicates with the user, but also makes decisions, and reacts to obstacles and conditions present in the immediate surroundings. A voice-activated system which allows the individual to speak out commands was designed by a team of researchers from the Technical University of Catalonia (UPC). Led by Prof. Cortés and Antonio B Martínez-Velasco, the researchers developed the i-Walker to aid people in multiple settings and for medical rehabilitation. Medical advice for this development came from Dr Fabio Campana (CAD) and Dr Annicchiarico.

An accelerator enables the i-Walker to automatically detect possible falls. The device also adjusts and corrects itineraries, helps the user turn corners, and controls braking. For those trying to regain their strength and improve motor skills, the i-Walker measures the efforts made by the user, the distance travelled, and the calories burned. This data, under the trained supervision of a medical practitioner, can then be analysed over time.

Wheelchairs

Most wheelchairs are either manually operated or assisted by motors. What sets SHARE-it's wheelchairs apart is that they can perform any number of tasks in a dynamic environment without continuous human guidance. All three wheelchairs are designed to cooperate with human mobility so that people retain or even improve their residual capabilities.

The Spherik wheelchair, for instance, is designed to be used indoors. Its spherical wheels allow for maximum manoeuvrability within a limited space. Rolland IV, on the other hand, looks more like a standard wheelchair. However, it is equipped with an electric differential-drive, two laser scanners, odometry sensors, and an embedded PC that executes proprietary software. This work was led by Dr Thomas Röfer at DFKI-Bremen. This software, like the Safety Assistant, the Driving Assistant, the MultiModal Driving Assistant, and Route Assistant has also been partially developed for i-Walker.

The Carmen wheelchair offers an unprecedented shared control with the user. Both the individual and the integrated robot collaborate at all times. Carmen has a frontal laser sensor, onboard computer and a Wi-Fi router that connects to external software. However, at any time, the operator can override the wheelchair. For instance, if the wheelchair detects an imminent collision it will automatically employ a reactive algorithm to avoid the obstacle. The wheelchair operator can then take over manually. This work was led by Dr Crisitina Urdiales at University of Malaga (UMA).

A step forward

SHARE-it's technology is being used in different settings and institutions. The Fondazione Santa Lucia (FSL), a hospital for the neuro-motor rehabilitation of patients, in Rome, plans to introduce the project's results in patient treatment.

'At FSL, after some preliminary tests, we are planning a clinical trial on our patients in order to assess the efficacy of i-Walker in rehabilitation practice,' notes Dr Annicchiarico. 'Based on the results we obtain, we will consider the possible introduction of i-Walker as a part of the treatment. But let me clarify that at this stage the i-Walker cannot be used as a diagnosis tool.'

Several other SHARE-it project partners have also expressed interest in possible joint ventures and other business opportunities. Throughout the month of August, SHARE-it's results were showcased in the Italian pavilion at the Shangai World Expo 2010.

The end result will be a net improvement in the lives and well-being of the physically disabled. The SHARE-it project received funding from the EU's Sixth Framework Programme for IST research.

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