American researchers have moved one step closer to making robotic nurses a reality by finding a way to instruct a robot to find a thing it has never seen before, and deliver it to its owner.
Project leader Charlie Kemp, director of the Center for Healthcare Robotics in the Health Systems Institute at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Emory University, has revealed that his new robot called El-E (pronounced as Ellie) is wholly based on a laser system.
He says that the robot gets instructions through a green laser pointer operated by its owner to select objects he/she wants.
Once the robot has picked up the item, the laser pointer can be used to guide the robot to another location to deposit the item or to take it to a person.
The researcher believes that his system may be specifically helpful for people with limited mobility with everyday tasks.
Kemp says that El-E, named for her ability to elevate her arm and for the arm's resemblance to an elephant trunk, can grasp several types of household items like towels, pill bottles and telephones from floors or tables.
The robot can also elevate its arm in case the item is kept at a height, and what enables it to do so are the in-built sensors that match the height of the object's location.
El-E uses custom-built cameras to perform its tasks. After it detects that a selection has been made with the laser pointer, it moves two cameras to look at the laser spot and triangulate its position in three-dimensional space.
Kemp says that humans often use several words that may make it very difficult for a robot to understand their commands, like saying "the cup near the couch" or "the brush next to the red toothbrush".
He says that the use of a laser pointer offers a solution to this ambiguity.
"We humans naturally point at things but we aren't very accurate, so we use the context of the situation or verbal cues to clarify which object is important. Robots have some ability to retrieve specific, predefined objects, such as a soda can, but retrieving generic everyday objects has been a challenge for robots," Kemp says.
"If you want a robot to cook a meal or brush your hair, you will probably want the robot to first fetch the items it will need, and for tasks such as cleaning up around the home, it is essential that the robot be able to pick up objects and move them to new locations. We see object fetching as a core capability for future robots in healthcare settings, such as the home," Kemp adds.
Kemp and his colleagues are currently gathering input from ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig's disease) patients and doctors to prepare El-E to assist patients with severe mobility challenges.