The Daily Illini

A destined duo: UI professor to develop robots that aid elderly

By Emily Scott

It’s like a scene in “Cinderella,” but not the one you’d expect.

In the classic fairytale “Cinderella,” the princess has mice and birds to help make her morning routine run smoother. But what if there was a way to translate this concept into the real world with something that could help senior citizens complete daily tasks?

Naira Hovakimyan, a professor in the mechanical science and engineering department, believes she has the answer with her research project called ASPIRE — Automation Supporting Prolonged Independent Residence for the Elderly.

ASPIRE envisions creating robots and drones that can help senior citizens perform daily tasks, such as retrieving medications or maybe even watering the plants. The robots will be controlled by a program on a smartphone or a tablet.

University researchers from a variety of departments are involved with ASPIRE, including Alex Kirlik from computer science, Dusan Stipanovic from industrial and enterprise systems engineering, Ranxiao Wang from psychology and Amy LaViers from mechanical science and engineering.

They recently received a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation as a part of its National Robotics Initiative.

Recently, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development found that senior citizens would prefer to stay in their homes longer. ASPIRE is responding to this population’s need.

By providing flexibility, safety and usability — all at a reasonable price — assistive robots in the homes of senior citizens may just become the new norm.

“The grandmas today would be scared, but if you develop it today for 20 years with my students, we do these experiments and get it to virtual reality,” Hovakimyan said. “By the time I’m retiring, I’d be happy to have a few of those in my home.”

The key is in perfecting the human-robot interaction. Humans using the robots need to be able to trust them, and the robots need to be able to work functionally in a home. Hovakimyan said her research team must develop an algorithm that prevents the robots from colliding with each other or their human owners.

“We want to figure out if a few things are moving around (and) how to make sure they never collide,” Hovakimyan said. “If you look at birds, they’re flying all the time, but they are never colliding.”

Virtual reality may also be able to help with this problem. Thiago Marinho, a Ph.D. student in mechanical science and engineering, is working primarily with virtual reality experimentation within ASPIRE.

He said he became interested with the project because he is interested in human-robot interactions.

“Most people deal with robots that look like humans, but nobody has really thought of humans and robots when they are small, mobile, flying, dangerous things,” Marinho said.

Moving forward, his idea is to build a virtual-reality environment and collect data from experiments. This data will then assist in the design of the robots.

“My vision is to reprogram today’s technology to allow it inside our homes,” he said.

Hovakimyan explained that senior citizens today would take time to warm up to this technology, similarly to the process through which smartphones became common in today’s society.

“It will be entertaining … I mean, who had cell phones 20 years ago? Nobody,” Hovakimyan said. “Today, everybody has a few of those in their pockets. Drones are the next cell phone technology. Within the next 20 years, everyone will have a drone.”

This means that ASPIRE is not necessarily one-of-a-kind.

“There will be a lot of other assistive technologies down the road doing certain tasks in a different way,” she said. “We are not going to be unique, we are not going to be different; We are going to have fun while developing it.”

Overall, Hovakimyan said the main goal is to enjoy the process of developing this project.

“My ultimate goal is to create a lot of fun in the lab, to engage a lot of students, to see them excited doing things … travel to conferences, make people talk and see if we can develop it.”

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