Helpers with no risk of infection: is the robots now beating?

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With a blink, Pepper winks at his counterpart. “A wonderful good morning!” Says the white robot. “I hope you all slept well and are ready to exercise with me.” For over half a year, during the corona pandemic, Pepper guided seniors in a nursing home in Ehningen (Boeblingen district) in the morning exercise program – and gradually gained sympathy there.

“The first skepticism that we still had in November and December 2020 has decreased,” says home manager Julian Krüger from the Liebenau Foundation. “The best reaction was: ‘I would marry him too’.” The foundation paid around 30,000 euros for the 1.20 meter tall robot, and the Ravensburg-Weingarten University of Applied Sciences took over the programming. “We want to show young people that more and more technology is also finding its way into care,” says Krüger. “Looking ahead, we are hoping for some relief.”

During the corona pandemic, service robots like Pepper were used more often than before, says business informatics professor Oliver Bendel. “There has been a lot of experimentation.” The android helpers have so far been in demand, especially in the areas of security, transport and cleaning or disinfection.

In the “V8 Hotel Motorworld” in Böblingen, for example, the “Hero21” robot disinfects the restaurant and all rooms when guests change with UVC light. “This is how we ensure that every guest finds a correctly disinfected room,” says director Markus Hofherr. The robot is not a substitute for employees, but it can reduce their risk of infection. The robot also makes an impression on visitors, says Hofherr. “Many guests think it’s great that he takes care of their health and well-being. They take pictures with our robot and want to know more about it.”

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Corona test smears by machine hand are also possible: In Munich, the automation company Franka Emika has been using a self-developed robot arm since this year to test its employees several times a week. The system is also in use in a public test station in the Schwabing district of Munich, said a company spokeswoman. The robot could keep the minimum distances during testing, and the quality of the smears always remains the same.

According to two studies by the Technical University of Darmstadt (TU), acceptance for the use of such machines has increased, especially during the corona pandemic. More than two thirds of those questioned saw clear advantages of service robots. This reduces the risk of infection, prevents the shortage of skilled workers and reduces the overloading of human workers.

“As a rule, robots take on tasks that are difficult, impossible or dangerous for us,” says business informatics professor Bendel. “So when crises and disasters increase, robotics will boom.” So far, however, there have hardly been any really large funding programs for research in this area, says Brendel. “AI is a huge hype, service robotics are criminally neglected.”

The Federal Ministry of Research contradicts this. Assistant and service robotics are playing “an increasingly important role,” says a spokesman. Among other things, the ministry is funding the “ProteCT” project, which is supposed to enable telemedicine with the help of sensitive robotic arms. “Tomorrow’s healthcare will increasingly rely on digital and contactless applications,” said the ministry. “Service robotics can be a building block for dealing with challenges like the Covid-19 pandemic.”

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However, the hurdles for using robots are particularly high in care. “To this day there are no robots that can attract or feed patients,” says business informatics professor Bendel. “In order for a robot to be able to do that, it has to be very heavy. And if such a device should fall over, the patient is flat.”

Also At the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation (IPA) in Stuttgart, one sees greater short-term opportunities for robots in material transport and disinfection. “If a robot does this, the risk of infection for the employees decreases,” says the group leader for household and assistant robotics, Birgit Graf. Among other things, the IPA has developed the “DeKonBot”, which can clean surfaces such as door handles and light switches with a disinfectant wipe. An intelligent care trolley for transporting laundry or bandages was also tested in practice.

Pepper is a long way from such demanding tasks, says Benjamin Stähle, deputy head of the Institute for Artificial Intelligence at the Ravensburg-Weingarten University of Applied Sciences. “But that was the first test balloon.” Next they want to teach Pepper to find their way around the old people’s home independently. “Then he could greet people and remind them to drink or take medication,” says Stähle. The sympathy gained by the residents should hardly hurt in this task.


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