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The McKechnie Family LIFE Home is a cutting-edge research center focused on innovations in home environments.

Grant permits interdisciplinary research team to explore how soft robots can support healthcare

An increasing number of older adults live independently but have health conditions that must be managed—both chronic and acute. A grant awarded to an interdisciplinary team including KCH Professor Wendy Rogers aims to investigate some solutions to those issues.

Rogers will be working with Professor Girish Krishnan, an assistant professor in The Grainger College of Engineering, and Dr. Robert Riech of OSF HealthCare on a newly funded $74,086 grant from the Jump Applied Research through Community Health through Engineering and Simulation (ARCHES) program of OSF HealthCare.

The main objective of the one-year project is to explore the potential for soft robots for telehealth monitoring of older adults.

Soft robots, for the uninitiated, are composed of soft, elastic materials and offer unique opportunities in areas in which conventional rigid robots are not viable; for example, for drug delivery, non-invasive surgical procedures, as assistive devices, prostheses or artificial organs.

The project will have two prongs in the next year: first, there will be the design and building of a soft robot with a camera that can navigate toward a wound or other area of an older patient.

Krishnan has already built some soft robotic actuators known as Fiber Reinforced Elastomeric Enclosures (FREEs). The robots can achieve different motions such as bending, contraction and axial rotation.

The researchers plan to investigate a technique known as visual servoing, by which the robot can position its arms near a wound or a predetermined area, guided by visual feedback from the camera; the second aim involves exploring the needs of those who will interact with the robot, specifically healthcare providers and older adults.

Researchers plan to interview the healthcare providers to identify the cases in which the robots would be commonly used. They willl also interview older adults to determine how to build trust between them and the robots with which they will interact.

The interactions will take place in the new McKechnie Family LIFE Home on campus, Rogers said. The home simulation space will be used to enable older adults to interact with the robot prototypes. The video capabilities and remote access lab in the LIFE Home will also support the simulation of telehealth contexts for the healthcare providers to assess the utility of the prototypes.

If successful, the use of soft robotics for older adults through telehealth could disrupt the market as a cost-effective and safe alternative to more-costly health care. Additionally, the robots could be fitted with a gripper that could help older adults with daily activities such as reaching into kitchen cabinets, loading dishwashers and searching for lost items.

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