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Charlie the robot joins rest home staff

As part of a three-year study into robots' role in senior health care, New Zealand retirement village welcomes Korean robot that will take vital signs, dole out medication reminders.

Add another robot to the list of helping bots for seniors. A robot named Charlie rolled into a New Zealand retirement village on Monday to take residents' vital signs, deliver their medication reminders, and call for assistance if they fall.

Charlie's trial stint at Selwyn Retirement Village in Auckland's Point Chevalier is, in part, a response to a University of Auckland study exploring seniors' attitudes toward robots.

The study--part of a three-year "HealthBots" collaboration by the University of Auckland and Korea's Electronics and Telecommunications Research Institute--collated the opinions of Selwyn Retirement Village residents, their families, and staff on what tasks health care robots could perform and what the mechanical helpers should look like.

Results showed respondents felt most comfortable with robots taking vital signs such as blood pressure, calling for help, lifting heavy objects, cleaning, and making phone calls to a doctor or nurse. They did not identify personal care, medical advice, and assessing emotions as tasks they'd like to see taken over by robots.

Charlie the robot
Posing with Charlie the robot are HealthBots team members (from left) Rebecca Stafford, Bruce MacDonald, and Elizabeth Broadbent. University of Auckland

As far as physical appearance, residents and staff indicated they preferred a "middle-age robot" with a clear voice, though they didn't have a preference for male or female features. The robot shouldn't be too human-like, they suggested, with some residents explicitly saying they'd rather be tended to by a robot without a face. The preferred design was silver and around 4 feet tall, so the robot was not too imposing, with wheels and a screen.

Enter Charlie, which pretty much fits that description. The 3.6-foot, 99-pound robot may have a humanoid name, but instead of the sort of humanoid face we've been seeing so much of lately, it greets residents with a 10.4-inch touch screen.

Manufactured by South Korea's Yujin Robot, which also makes a Scooba-like vacuuming robot, among other bots, Charlie has a commercial Stargazer navigation system that responds to markers on the ceiling. It has a camera, sensors for detecting obstacles, speech-recognition capabilities, and a wireless Internet connection.

The roving robot has two onboard computers--one running Linux for low-level hardware control and one running Windows for user interface control. It comes with a docking/charging station that it can locate itself (battery life is three hours, as is charging time), and a remote control.

Robots, of course, are not new to the health care landscape. We've seen robotic surgeons and mobile, remote-presence robot doctors. At the IFA gadgets show in Berlin earlier this year, iRobot CEO Colin Angle said robotic telepresence devices, which would act like nurses in people's homes, could reduce the $2.2 trillion, or 17 percent of the U.S. GDP, currently spent on health care every year.

In Japan, home to one of the world's most rapidly aging populations, Riba the teddy bear robot nurse lifts elderly patients from wheelchairs and beds, and Taizo, a humanoid robot, leads Japanese seniors in calisthenics.