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Can't make it to school? Send a robot

Not since the Bubonic Plague has something threatened to tear families apart quite like a new robot that enables sick, suspended or even imprisoned students to attend class with the help of some fully equipped, interactive robots.

Parents will hail and children will mourn the technological advancement created by Telbotics, which threatens to make extinct the days of faking a cough or two while heating the thermometer in hopes of avoiding school.

Credit: Telbotics

Through the new program, called PEBBLES (Providing Education By Bringing Learning Environments to Students), robots work in pairs. One stays with the student while the other stays in class, creating a physical presence, or what inventors call a "telepresence," of the child.

Each robot has a disk-shaped head and a 15-inch screen that provides a live picture of the student so, just like normal, the teacher can run the class, keeping an eye on an "absent" pupil. Scanners and printers make it possible for the student to receive materials passed out in class, as well as graded homework and study sheets.

If teachers want to be sure the student sees something more closely, such as a map or a picture, they can hold it up to the screen.

The robot next to the student, meanwhile, receives commands from a bedside console. It travels from class to class on four wheels and can stop at the lockers to chat with friends and teachers between classes.

Using the console, a student can zoom in to see the teacher, read the board, talk to a classmate, raise the robot's hand to answer a question, or even, during lengthier lectures, gaze longingly out the window.

Researchers say the technology, which is still in the trial stages, creates a healthier and less stressful situation for isolated students, and also helps ease re-integration back into the classroom.

The system, which is currently being used with primary school students, was developed with the help of Ryerson University and the University of Toronto and is managed in the U.S. by The Learning Collaborative under a federal grant.

There are currently 40 robots on loan to U.S. hospitals, including UCSF's Children's Hospital and the Yale-New Haven Hospital in Connecticut. The system is available for sale at $70,000 per pair.