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EXCLUSIVE: Young innovator plans to bring robots to care homes

Penelope

Young Innovators Awards winner Penelope Roberts talks to CHP about her plans to develop an AI robot that can provide companionship and assistance with menial tasks in care homes.

Run in partnership with The Prince’s Trust, Innovate UK’s Young Innovators Awards offer a £5,000 grant and one-on-one coaching to help young entrepreneurs achieve their dreams.

University of Essex student, Penelope, (pictured) was selected as one of this year’s 64 winners, for her idea of developing a robotic companion and assistant for care home residents.

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The 26-year-old came up with the idea for her company, RoboNurse4NHS, during her PHD.

“I was looking at areas where there were staffing shortages, where investment was going and where people were not getting the care they needed,” Penelope explained.

“The idea was to look at what tasks we could potentially automate to help fill those gaps.

“I’ve had experience of family members being in care homes and I had this view of what they really wanted and the things that I would have liked them to have. It was my aim to find that more personal assistant who would always be there and provide companionship to people.”

As part of the 12-month project, Penelope has begun trials of the robot with Community Interest Company, Provide, in care homes and hospitals using a basic prototype to collect initial data and feedback.

“The trials have been really good,” Penelope told CHP. “We got a lot of feedback. Staff liked the initial prototype we had and gave us suggestions on how it could be more effective and what they would want it to do. It was good to see people interacting with it as well, they were really willing to talk to it and have it near them and to interact with it in general.”

The Softbanks Robotics’ Pepper robot, which has been involved in a number of care home trials in the last couple of years, has been fitted with software developed by Penelope so that it can provide customisable care for individual care home residents.

The robots are programmed to carry out menial tasks such as medication reminders, food and drink reminders, health monitoring, and fall monitoring, as well as to interact with residents.

“The project is about trying to automate some of the daily repetitive tasks that carers do to give them more time to spend with people and give individualised care,” Penelope said.

“It’s also to help to make sure that the residents who need this care are definitely getting it. The software I have made for it is designed to learn constantly. It’s designed to work with people and learn their traits and learn how they do things so it’s more personalised.”

Conscious of the instinctive reaction amongst some in the care home sector against the introduction of any element of robotics to people’s care, Penelope stressed that the aim was not to take people’s jobs or remove the human element.

“These robots aren’t designed to replace anyone,” Penelope told us. “They are there to help people and fill the gap that is there. The whole idea is to make it easier for carers to provide the care and keep that constant human element going while at the same time making sure that everyone is getting the care they need.”

With her ambitious goal of rolling out the robotic companions to care homes as well as hospitals and in people’s homes, the young entrepreneur clearly has big plans for the future.

CHP looks forward to hearing more from Penelope in the months and years ahead.

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The author Lee Peart

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