Home Test in UK Shows How Support Robot Could Help Patients

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by Mary Chapman |

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Human Support Robot | ALS News Today | motor neuron disease | illustration of man in wheelchair

Before his recent death, motor neuron disease (MND) patient Anthony Walsh had the opportunity to try a prototype Toyota Human Support Robot (HSR), providing a glimpse into the kind of technology that could be used to help people with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and other MNDs with everyday tasks.

Walsh, who was diagnosed with MND in May, was the first person in the United Kingdom to participate in a home trial of the service robot that’s being developed as part of Toyota’s global mission to provide mobility to everyone.

The HSR project was conceived through Toyota’s three-year partnership with the MND Association, which began in April, to raise funds for the organization as well as awareness of the needs of those with MNDs, a group of progressive motor disorders that includes amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).

“We’ve been offering the HSR open innovation platform to research partners worldwide, and although the robot isn’t on general sale to the public, this home trial with Anthony Walsh has provided hugely useful insights into how this type of robot could help people in the future,” Mark Van Loock, technology manager at Toyota Motor Europe, said in a press release.

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To honor the wishes of Walsh, who had wanted to raise awareness of MND as well as the work of the nonprofit MND Association, a four-minute video has been released. In it, Walsh talks about the hardships MND poses and how the robot helped.

Walsh, who had gone from the ability to still play football at age 51, to suddenly having to use a wheelchair, experienced significant weakness in both legs and found it very difficult to navigate around his home. He also didn’t like having to constantly ask for help with everyday tasks. Walsh lived in Southgate, North London with his wife, Siobhan, and two young children.

“You don’t really think about things like reaching to pick up a tissue, opening the fridge and getting something from the shelf,” Walsh said in the video. “It gives you back a little of your independence and actually frees up time for other people to not always be at your beck and call, and to have some of their own time back, you know?”

The machine, said to be highly maneuverable, is compact and has a cylindrical body and a folding arm. To help the elderly and people who are recovering from illness or injury, as well as those with conditions that cause physical disability, the robot is equipped with a broad array of sensors and cameras that enable it to perform practical tasks. For instance, it can grab objects, interact with humans, and make its way around homes or similar environments.

“We’re just getting the first taste of what the future might hold and what technology is out there that might be manipulated to help people in my condition, particularly those who maybe don’t have the same support network as I do,” Walsh said. “I think there could be a place where this robot could be there to help people in different ways in their day-to-day life. It gives you back a little bit of your independence, albeit you’re still relying on something else.”

During the trial, the HSR robot was manually controlled to perform tasks such as grabbing a carton of orange juice and the TV remote control. It even sang using Walsh’s voice, which had been recorded and “banked” in advance.

King’s College London’s robotics lab plans to collaborate with Toyota and the MND Association to make the machine autonomous and to develop algorithms that will enable it to “learn” how to perceive, and interact with, humans. In addition, the lab will seek to make such robots adapt to their users’ needs and preferences.

“One of the problems we are focusing on is how to make robots learn continuously without forgetting their past knowledge,” Oya Celiktutan, a lecturer in robotics at King’s College, said in a Toyota’s press release. “For instance, how we can make the HSR robot learn which is their user’s favorite mug and then bring their tea in it.”

Said Nick Goldup, director of care improvement at the MND Association: “The Toyota HSR robot is a brilliant example of how innovative technology could help to improve the lives of people living with MND, and why partnerships with pioneering companies like Toyota are vital to explore what might be possible in the future.”