The National Robotarium and robotics start-up TouchLab speak to Health Tech World about the potential for humanoid robots to drive better safety and efficiency in hospitals by taking on clinicians’ mundane and dangerous tasks.
Robots were first introduced to healthcare settings in the 1980s when the first generation of robotic arms were trained surgical assistants in operating theatres.
Since then, their role has expanded, assisting care teams in rehabilitation, carrying out simple hospital tasks and to a lesser extent, supporting social care.
The National Roboatrium in Edinburgh is the UK’s newest and largest robotics centre.
Hosted by Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh, the £22.4 million research facility officially opened its doors in September 2022 thanks to funding from the UK and Scottish Governments.
The facility works collaboratively with partners around the globe to define, develop and resolve industry challenges through robotics and AI. The healthcare space is a key area of focus for the centre.
“Our overarching aim is to enable more people to use more robots more of the time,” Lisa Farrell, business development manager at the National Robotarium, told Health Tech World.
“We have a dedicated suite of labs that are focused on the health and social care aspects of robotics.”
The centre’s Laboratory for Robotic Assistance (LARA), for example, is an assisted living lab space that can be used as an accessible two-bedroom apartment where technologies can be tested on end users.
Last year, the Robotarium worked with NHS Grampian on a study to understand the daily tasks that robotics and autonomous systems could assist with, taking frontline staff away from the “dull, the dirty and the dangerous”, and freeing up capacity to deliver better quality care.
“The staff engaged amazingly well,” Farrell said.
“They really understood that robots had the potential to free up some of their time to do what they got into the job for in the first place.”
Also based at the Robotarium is Bioliberty, an early-stage robotics company working in the rehabilitation space.
The company has developed a ‘rehab glove’ that helps patients recover muscle mass after a stroke of brain injury.
Developing a new generation of robots with a sense of touch
One particularly promising initiative to come out of the Robatorium recently is a novel robot with a ‘sense of touch’.
The technology is being developed by the deep-tech robotics company, Touchlab which is based in the facility.
The historic inability of robots to feel the world around them has been identified as one of the biggest barriers to mass robot adoption, but new technology developed by Touchlab gives clinicians the ability to ‘feel’ patients remotely for the first time.
Developing this sense of touch in future generations of robots will be crucial for expanding their use in a hospital setting.
Robots are becoming increasingly human-like with the rapid development of AI, but in order to pave the way for the next generation of humanoid robots, there is a massive need for them to be able to feel.
Currently, robots are well-equipped to handle items that are of a consistent size, but if they’re faced with a variety of items of contrasting shapes and sizes, their lack of touch makes this near-impossible.
“If you look at how we interact with the world, it’s very geared up to that sense,” Locky Wright, chief of staff at Touchlab, explained.
“When you’re picking up pretty much anything, you understand how hard to grasp, and things like slippage as well.
“Robots have completely missed this sense. It doesn’t really exist at all.
“If robots are going to be able to support us and take on more of our tasks, they are going to need to make this jump from what a traditional robot does, grasping the same item over and over again, to understanding the world and getting much more data from the world than they traditionally have been able to do.”
This is especially important in healthcare settings where safety is paramount.
“If the operator goes to touch a person or grasp something without an understanding of touch, you can imagine that can be very dangerous in a hospital environment,” said Wright.
Named the Välkky telerobot, the avatar is controlled by operators wearing an electronic haptic glove which replicates a sense of touch sent directly from the robotic hand.
This is made possible by an electronic skin technology which the company claims is the most advanced ‘e-skin’ ever developed.
The material is made up of single or multiple ultra-thin force sensors to transmit tactile sensations like pressure, vibration or motion from one source to another.
Thinner than human skin, the material can be wrapped around hard or soft robots to sense pressure, location and direction in real-time.
“In the past, telerobots have been limited to being able to see, hear and speak on behalf of the people using them,” said Touchlab CEO, Dr Zaki Hussein.
“Now, thanks to our innovative e-skin technology, robots like Välkky can ‘feel’ too – and not only on their fingertips.”
A groundbreaking new trial
The device is being piloted at Laakso Hospital in Helsinki, Finland where a team of purpose-trained nurses will explore how robotics systems can help deliver care, reduce workload and prevent the spread of infections or diseases
“We’re trialling this across a lot of different applications and use cases to really find out where the highest value would be,” Wright said.
The robot will initially be deployed on a small scale, carrying out simple tasks, such as retrieving fallen items and taking patient vital signs, but its potential goes beyond these mundane tasks.
“This includes patient-lifting, which could help alleviate potential physical injuries for staff, and [reduce] the spread of infection,” said Kirsi Ahonen, head nurse and project manager at Laakso Hospital.
“Envisioning a future where robots and caregivers collaborate seamlessly is something I find incredibly exciting.
“Our long-term goal is for Välkky to assist in a variety of day-to-day ward tasks to ensure the delivery of comprehensive patient monitoring and care.”
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 15 per cent of patients in low- and middle-income countries acquire at least one healthcare-associated infection (HAI) during their hospital stay.
On average, 1 in every 10 affected patients die as a result.
With over 43,000 registered nursing vacancies in England, it is hoped that Välkky will complement existing staff, freeing up time to focus on more complex nursing tasks while allowing the robot to carry out day-to-day clinical duties like measuring vital signs including pulse, temperature and oxygen saturation.
It is also able to serve meals, move assistive devices and support patient care with tasks like brushing hair.
The research is part of a wider €7 billion (£6 billion) project aimed at developing the most advanced hospital in Europe, due to be completed in 2028.
“It’s a hugely exciting time”
Looking ahead, the potential of robotics in healthcare is vast.
Over the next two decades, the National Robotarium envisions a healthcare landscape where robots seamlessly integrate into wide-ranging aspects of patient care.
Leveraging big data and AI, robotics could contribute to the growing push towards greater personalisation in healthcare.
And by allowing healthcare professionals to turn their focus to high-value tasks, robotics is set to pave the way for safer, more efficient and patient-centric care.
According to Farrel, it is a “hugely exciting time” to be working in the robotics sector.
“No two days are the same,” she said.
“I think what is really key for me is this idea of the dull, the dirty and the dangerous; taking people out of those tasks and allowing them to do the things that humans are best at.
“The National Robotarium as a whole is tackling some of society’s biggest challenges with robotics and AI solutions and we’re definitely on that path,” Farrell added.
“We’ve already started making those impacts and we are seeing applications for robotics across the healthcare sector.
“Everything from assistive robots for care professionals through to rehabilitation.
“And we’ve had quite a lot of traction with the pharmaceutical industry and medicines manufacturers who want to incorporate AI and robotics into medicines development.”