Gold, white and yellow lights sparks

Researchers at Cornell University have developed a robotic simulation platform that could pave the way for sophisticated robot caregivers in the home. The platform could be ready to use early next year.

The RCare World platform uses avatars representing people with motor disabilities, homes with different levels of modifications for accessibility and caregiving robots. The platform will help engineers design new robots or retool existing ones, allowing them to navigate around homes and perform various caregiving functions. 

The system was developed at Cornell’s EmPrise Lab, one of a handful of workspaces that design robots to assist with caregiving duties, such as bathing, feeding and dressing patients. 

“There are a lot of barriers to entry to this field,” project leader Tapomayukh Bhattacharjee, assistant professor of computer science in the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science, said in a statement. “You need continuous feedback from the stakeholders — the care-recipients who would potentially use this technology, the caregivers and health care professionals — to know whether the technology we’re developing is going to translate from the lab to real homes one day.” 

Robots are one possible solution to the nation’s caregiver shortage and some are already being used in various ways to help seniors in their homes.

Last spring, the New York State Office for the Aging deployed artificial intelligence-powered robotic companions to 800 seniors throughout the state. The desktop robots engage with older adults by responding to voice and body movements. California-based Labrador Systems will be piloting a robot next year that helps carry and retrieve objects. The company hopes to have hundreds of the systems on the market at the end of 2023. 

Cornell’s simulator could help develop robots with more sophisticated skill sets. The system will try to realistically replicate caregiving scenarios through six human aviators that move and behave like people with motor impairments, such as spinal cord injuries, brainstem stroke and cerebral palsy. One robot successfully performed a sponge bath using algorithms learned in the simulator. 

The robots and avatars will also interact in 16 different home settings and 200 different rooms, providing a more realistic depiction of what the robots might encounter in an actual home. 

“We are giving people a variety of tools that are necessary to come up with behaviors for physical caregiving or social caregiving scenarios,” Bhattacharjee said.