Family with Toyota care robot

Toyota ‘Human Support Robot’ completes first UK home trial

Image credit: Toyota

A robot assistant designed to aid people with mobility issues has been trialled in a UK home by Toyota. Researchers working with the robot hope that an autonomous version could eventually provide domestic support to people with a range of needs.

Toyota’s Human Support Robot (HSR) can fetch objects, perform basic human interactions, open doors and entertain through song and dance.

A HSR was provided for the home of Anthony Walsh, who had motor neurone disease (MND), through the company’s partnership with the MND Association. Walsh passed away shortly after the trial; his family have agreed to release details of the trial and a short film about the experience to raise awareness about MND and the MND Association.

Walsh lived in Southgate, north London, with his wife and two young children. He received his diagnosis in May and quickly went from being an active football-playing father to a wheelchair user, due to the rapid onset of the incurable disease. Although it was difficult to move around his home, he disliked having to ask his family for help all the time.

“Not being able to walk for the last month has been very hard to cope with,” said Walsh, speaking at the time of the trial. “I’ve lost my mobility and I have to be dependent on others, which is not the sort of person I was.”

The HSR was adopted as a home service robot. It is equipped with a folding arm and a range of sensors and cameras for helping people with mobility issues perform tasks. In the Walsh household, it helped fetch drinks from the fridge and passed objects such as tissues and the TV remote.

Walsh said: “We’re just getting the first taste of what the future might hold and what technology is out there that might be manipulated to help people in my condition, particularly those who maybe don’t have the same support network as I do. I think there could be a place where this robot could be there to help people in different ways with their day-to-day life. It gives you back a little bit of your independence, albeit you’re still relying on something else.”

Nick Goldup, director of care improvement at the MND Association, said: “MND is an extremely complex disease which affects the nerves in the brain and spinal cord which tell muscles what to do. As it progresses people lose the ability to move, which means they often rely on others to carry out simple tasks like fetching a glass of water or picking up the remote to change the TV channel.”

Mark Van Loock, technology manager at Toyota Motor Europe, commented: “We’ve been offering the HSR open innovation platform to research partners worldwide, and although the robot isn’t on general sale to the public, this home trial with Anthony Walsh has provided useful insights into how this type of robot could help people in the future.  It is a perfect expression of how Toyota as a mobility company wants to make freedom of movement, and the opportunities that brings, available to everyone in society.”

According to Toyota, the HSR is suitable for elderly and disabled people, and those recovering from illnesses or injuries that restrict mobility. At present, the robot is manually controlled. However, Toyota, the MND Association and King’s College London are planning to work together to make it autonomous and responsive to its users’ needs, surroundings and preferences.

Professor Oya Celiktutan, a lecturer in robotics at the department of engineering at King’s College London, said the researchers were also working on making the robot more able to learn from the humans around it.

“One of the problems we are focusing on is how to make robots learn continuously without forgetting their past knowledge,” she said. “For instance, how we can make the HSR robot learn which is their user’s favourite mug and then bring their tea in it.

“We are also working on algorithms to make the robot learn new tasks simply by watching humans, such as potentially preparing and giving medication.”

Viktor Schmuck, a robotics PhD candidate at King’s College London, supervised the HSR home trial. He said: “This was a great opportunity for us to see the challenges when robots are used in real-world home environments and assisting people living with MND. It gave us a great opportunity to see the user acceptance of, and trust in, the robots.

“In the next 20 years, I see robots like HSR being deployed more and more in different environments – indoors, outdoors, and specifically in care settings where they would be placed in homes of those in need, such as people living with MND.  And these robots could really alleviate the pressure on the care workers who interact with these people by mimicking the tasks they do.”

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