Skip to content

Robots developed to help people with disabilities

Robots to help reduce anxiety among children and telepresence robots that allow family to ‘visit’ their elderly relatives are being developed as part of a major new research project to create the next generation of assistive technologies.

The project, led by scientists and engineers from the University of Sheffield, will bring together expertise in arts, humanities, engineering and robotics to create assistive technologies for people with disabilities. The aim is to increase understanding of how disability is currently represented and the ways in which technology can enhance lives in the future.

An important focus of the Sheffield research will be on animal-like companion robots that could operate to reduce anxiety in children in a hospital setting.

Researchers at the university will also be developing telepresence robots – video screens on wheels raised to head height that can be controlled remotely using a simple smartphone app. They allow relatives and social workers to “visit” elderly people more often, even if they live in rural or distant places. The elderly patient doesn’t need to operate the device, leaving them free to interact with their social worker or family.

Funded with a flagship Wellcome Trust Humanities and Social Sciences Collaborative Award, the £1.5 million five-year project will work closely with a variety of disability groups from across the UK who will play a vital role in shaping the initiative. It will also include Sheffield Children’s NHS Foundation Trust, with researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in the USA and Kyushu Institute of Technology in Japan, and with the University of Sheffield spin-out company Consequential Robotics.

The team will conduct participatory design activities with children and older adults with disabilities with the aim of co-designing and prototyping next generation assistive technologies.

Professor Tony Prescott commented: “We are excited to work with researchers from the medical humanities to understand how culture influences the ways in which people relate to, and use, different kinds of robot technology in real-world contexts such as classrooms, hospital wards and people’s homes.

“Our aim in this project is to work closely with people with disabilities in order to understand how assistive robots could help them and to design new kinds of assistive robot technologies that they find appealing and useable.”