As part of the "SeRoDi" project ("Service Robotics for Personal Services"), Fraunhofer IPA collaborated with other research and application partners to develop new service robotics solutions for the nursing sector. The resulting robots, the "intelligent care cart" and the "robotic service assistant", were used in extensive real-world trials in a hospital and at two care homes. This enabled the project partners to confirm the benefits of the robots for reducing the workload of staff.
The robotic service assistant is capable of operating in common rooms at care homes and hospitals, where it serves drinks and snacks to the residents or patients.
Not enough nurses for too many patients or residents: this is a familiar problem in the nursing sector. To address this, there is a need for new solutions that not only reduce the physical and information-management workload of the staff, but also free them up to spend more time with those in need of care. The use of state-of-the-art nursing aids to assist the staff also makes it possible to add to the attraction of the nursing profession while maintaining an adequate quality of care also under challenging conditions. This is where service robots of the kind developed by Fraunhofer IPA and its partners under SeRoDi can be of benefit. The project received funding from the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research.
To cut down the legwork of the nursing staff and reduce the time spent keeping manual records of the consumption of medical supplies, Fraunhofer IPA in collaboration with the MLR company developed the "intelligent care cart". Using a smartphone, the nurse is able to summon the care cart to the desired room, whereupon it makes its own way there. If the room is on a different floor, the care cart can use the lift. A 3D sensor along with object recognition software enables the care cart to automatically register the consumption of medical supplies. If an item is running low or the battery needs recharging, the care cart travels autonomously to the storage area or charging station once this has been approved by the staff. Being of modular design, the care cart can be adapted to different application scenarios and practical requirements. While it served for the transport of laundry items at the care homes, it was used to carry wound treatment materials in the hospital. A further feature of the intelligent care cart: it was always locked, the nurse opening it by logging in on the tablet. This also made it possible for the care cart to transport items that would otherwise have to be stored in a locked room and fetched only when needed.
The care carts developed as part of the project were used in two coordinated multi-week trials at the participating establishments in Mannheim, the University Clinic, the Seniorenzentrum Waldhof and the Ida Scipio Heim. Whereas, at the care homes, the robot was stocked with laundry items directly by the nursing staff on the ward, the care cart used at the University Clinic was integrated into the hospital’s extensive logistical processes. The modular baskets containing the dressing materials were restocked at the hospital’s central logistics facility and sent to the wards, which meant that all the nursing staff had to do was to replace empty baskets with pre-packaged ones, with no need to put all the items together themselves. To further reduce the workload of the staff, Fraunhofer IPA is currently working on a solution also to automate the changing of the modular baskets.
One important finding from the real-world trials concerned the navigation of the care cart. As the intelligent care cart is based on the navigation processes of a driverless transport vehicle, it travels primarily along fixed predefined paths. For use in public spaces, it is possible to make minor deviations from these paths in order, for example, to dynamically negotiate obstacles in the way. The real-world trials revealed that efficient navigation requires extensive knowledge of the internal processes in order, among other things, to guarantee that the desired destination is actually accessible.
The initial trials also showed that it makes a big difference whether the corridors have a single lane for both directions or separate lanes, i.e. one for each direction. A single lane proved more advantageous, as it was then unnecessary to keep so much space clear along the narrow corridors – even if this meant the robot not stopping immediately outside every room and sometimes having to travel with the drawers towards the wall and not turning until at the destination. For the residents and staff, however, this made it clearer where the robot was going. In addition, restricting the care carts to a single lane ensured that they did not have to make major detours in order, for example, to switch from one side of the corridor to the other.
Evaluating the real-world trials, the participating nursing staff confirmed that, by reducing the amount of legwork, along with the associated time-saving, the intelligent care cart represents a potential benefit in their day-to-day work. Also, the faster provision of care, with no interruptions for restocking the care cart, results in an improvement in quality for patients and residents. Control of the care cart using a smartphone and touch screen was described by the nursing staff as straightforward. In addition to the nursing staff, the residents and patients as well as their relatives showed great interest in the new technology. "Having hit upon the idea of an intelligent care cart already some years ago, and with many potential users having shown great interest in the idea, I was delighted finally to see the care cart in operation as part of the SeRoDi project in the corridors of the hospital and care homes," emphasizes Dr. Birgit Graf, who heads the Domestic and Personal Robotics group at Fraunhofer IPA.
Alongside the intelligent care cart, the robotic service assistant is another result of the SeRoDi project. Stocked with up to 28 drinks or snacks, the mobile robot is capable of serving them to patients or residents. Once again, the goal is to reduce the workload of the staff, in addition to improving the hydration of the residents by means of regular reminders. Using the robot also has the potential to promote the independence of those in need of care.
At the Seniorenzentrum Waldhof in Mannheim, where the robotic service assistant was trialed for one week in a common room, it made for a welcome change, with many residents being both curious and interested. Using the robot’s touch screen, they were able to select from a choice of drinks, which were then served to them by the robot. Once all the supplies had been used up, the service assistant returned to the kitchen, where it was restocked by the staff before being sent back to the day room by the use of a smartphone.
This robot, too, received great interest from the participating nursing staff, who also discussed a host of possible improvements and additions to the robot in the course of the trial. Interaction with the residents was successful in the majority of cases, it merely sometimes being necessary for them to be shown how to use the touch screen. The synthesized voice of the robot was especially popular and even motivated the residents to converse with the robot.
"For us, the real-world trials provided valuable knowledge, enabling us to further optimize the robots and even better adapt them to the needs of users," says Graf, summing up. For instance, the SeRoDi project has given a major boost to the use of new robotic solutions in the nursing sector. The medium-term goal is to make the improved prototypes ready for series production in collaboration with interested companies. At the same time, Fraunhofer IPA is continuing its long-standing work to open up new applications, including the development of robotic solutions for the nursing sector.
REHACARE.com; Source: Fraunhofer-Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA