By Zakwan Zainal Abidin
Drone technology may be the answer to resolving the problems of caring for the elderly, according to researchers at the Intelligent Robotics Lab.According to Professor Naira Hovakimyan, undertaking research in developing drones to enhance the care for older people is vital in light of their growing numbers.
“It is projected that by 2030 the population aged over 65 will double, which can potentially create an overload for nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Advanced technology can help people stay in their homes longer and live independently,” she said.
Professor Hovakimyan who heads the project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Campaign (UIUC) was recently awarded a $1.5 million research grant from the National Science Foundation to design small, autonomous drones which can perform simple chores such as picking up objects from under a table and mowing the lawn. With the growing application of drone usage today from transporting items to surveillance, the robotics professor believes that in 20 years or so drones will become as common as today’s cell phones.
“I have no doubt about it. If you check Nixie drone, you’ll see that a drone is reduced to the level of wearable technologies, which means that it can be made of plastic soft materials, be miniaturized in size and be used as a watch and camera. I have no doubt that the wearable drones can have smart watches inside.”
When asked whether drones could replace the human workforce in the care of the elderly, Professor Hovakimyan was sure that drones will not entirely usurp humans. “Only humans can spend time on conversations, psychological support and keep people company. Delivering pills and other similar tasks can be done by drones.”
Professor Hovakimyan’s research is just one of many scientific undertakings currently being conducted worldwide to improve the care of the elderly. Japan has been at the forefront of this endeavor due to the country’s growing population of elderly citizens and the declining number of youth due to the low birth rate. This has prompted the Japanese government to pour in millions into elder care robotics development. Successes born from this initiative includes a touch-sensitive robotic seal named PARO designed to keep dementia patients company and Encore Smart, a walker robot which can assist the elderly across a difficult terrain such as hillsides and beaches.
While the advancement of modern science is crucial in ensuring the well-being of elderly citizens within their homes, it hinges on how well the intended target user group can operate the devices. But it shouldn’t be a problem. “They can be managed from an iPhone and iPad,” said Professor Hovakimyan. She also assures that the technology will be affordable for the general public. “Certainly! Today in our lab we use a $2000 platform to deliver a pill to a person in need. Given the falling prices of hardware, this means that within the next 10-20 years, we will be able to afford such technologies for $420.”
It’s still too early to tell how drones can improve the care of the elderly, but Professor Hovakimyan expressed optimism about the benefits that can be gained from this scientific venture. “Keep in mind that by the time the technology is ready, it will be my generation in need of it. And if today I am developing it, then I won’t be scared of it, and I will be able to manage it perfectly.”
Photo Credit to Pixabay