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Robotic Nurse Washes Human

A robot uses a soapy sponge to clean off a patient’s skin.

A robot known as “Cody” successfully wiped away blue candy from a test user’s legs and arms without being too forceful, researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology (led by assistant professor Charlie Kemp) reported at the 2010 IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS) conference last month.

The elderly and people with disabilities often have trouble with daily activities, like folding laundry, getting groceries, and even maintaining personal hygiene. Robots that can put away clean dishes or sort laundry may aid people enough to let them maintain an independent lifestyle for longer in their homes or help ease some of the burden of hospital or assisted-living workers. Now Cody has added another task to robots’ repertoire of personal assistance tasks: wiping down a person too bedridden or injured to bathe themselves.

A bed bath–where a nurse or family member uses a soapy sponge to clean off a patient’s skin–can be an awkward social situation and make a patient feel uncomfortable. Instead, a human operator can tell Cody what parts of the patient’s body to clean. Cody uses a camera and laser range finder above its torso to gather data before autonomously cleaning the area.

Chih-Hung King, first author of the work and sole test subject in the video below, reports on the experience of being wiped down by a robot:

In the beginning I felt a bit tense, but never scared. As the experiment progressed, my trust in the robot grew and my tension waned. Throughout the experiment, I suffered little-to-no discomfort.

For safety precautions, Cody’s arm joints are made with low stiffness to soften any accidental impact, and the robot is programmed to never exert more than a certain amount of pressure (well below the threshold of causing any damage). And of course, a “stop” button shuts off any movement. The robot, which can also be led by a nurse holding its robotic hand, was developed in the same lab that brought us the fetching, door-opening El-E robot.

Innuendos aside, this work represents a good step for health-care robotics. As more roboticists design automatons to assist the booming elderly population and come into direct contact with humans, safety becomes even more important.

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