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Qolt: The Amazing Technology that Helps Seniors Stay Independent

Imagine a world where personal robots help the elderly and disabled cook and clean. Where camera- and sensor-rich “smart cottages” provide data to teams of human angels poised to swoop down and intervene when residents need help.  Where senior citizens avoid or defer the need for assisted living facilities because of this benevolent monitoring and assistance network.

Takeo Kanade and Jim “Oz” Osborn are doing more than imagining it. They head a powerhouse team, spearheaded by Carnegie Mellon University and the University of Pittsburgh, charged with researching and developing such new technology, then making it work. And their two pilot projects, right here in Greater Pittsburgh, already are underway.

The initiative, known as Quality of Life Technology Engineering Research Center — QoLT for short — is funded by a five-year, $15 million National Science Foundation grant and headquartered at CMU.

Its principal goal is to transform robotics and related technologies to tools that help those with reduced functional capabilities live independently, in their homes, for as long as possible. Not only is the impact on lives potentially significant, but the savings from personal robotics also could be vast. QoLT estimates that enabling seniors to live independently for only one month longer than they would without new technologies could save $1.2 billion annually.

“Historically, robotics has been applied to, and motivated by, the military, space and industrial sectors,” says Kanade. “Robotics research hasn’t been necessarily related as much to everyday life, although you do see it in the entertainment sector. So it’s probably a good thing to make robotics intelligence systems that more directly improve people’s lives beyond entertainment.”

QoLT already has assembled a crackerjack multidisciplinary force. Kanade, the U.A. and Helen Whitaker University Professor of Computer Science and Robotics at CMU, serves as QoLT director while Osborn, a longtime leader in the robotics sector, is executive director and industry liaison. They’re joined by such luminaries as Pitt’s Rory Cooper, QoLT co-director and a nationally renowned figure in rehabilitative science and technologies. About a dozen educational institutions, including Chatham University, are also participating.

According to Osborn, identifying accomplished scientists to sign on may have been QoLT’s easiest task.

“It’s an obvious way to make a visible change in people’s lives,” he says. “Even in medical robotics, the application of the technology and how it fits in a person’s life is one step removed because it’s the doctors who actually have their hands on the technology. Here, we have a direct application to the end user. That’s very compelling.”

Coaching, Monitoring and More

The QoLT team envisions at least three levels at which smart cottages can help residents. The most basic: A monitoring/communication system could serve as a 24-7 adviser, reminding residents to, say, turn off appliances.

“We think of this as coaching,” Kanade says. “The system may remind you who you’re talking to in case you forget, or coach you on some of life’s daily chores. You may be cooking and get distracted by a telephone call. The system knows what you’ve been doing and reminds you where you were.”

A second tier of service would involve more comprehensive monitoring, with data captured by an extensive network of cameras, sensors and wearable devices. This, Osborn says, would represent a level of personal monitoring as yet unseen.

“Monitoring capabilities could provide a summary report, but not just heart rate and blood pressure,” he says. “They would offer something richer, like, How much social activity was there? Were medications taken properly? Were meals eaten completely? You wouldn’t necessarily need an automatic trigger for an emergency situation. You just need the data summarized for anybody who’s allowed to look at it, such as family members or visiting nurses.”

While intervention based on the readings might not be automatic, the data would alert medical professionals to potentially dangerous situations.

“You may actually be able to time medical intervention earlier, more appropriately,” Kanade says.

Yet another level of assistance might come in the area of driving, where new technologies could aid motorists whose reflexes have slowed.

“There might be difficult intersections you want to avoid,” Kanade says. “The system knows the right route for you. It generates an invisible funnel along that route so that it’s easier for you to drive within the funnel. Even though you’re controlling the car, it takes more conscious effort to be out of that funnel.”

He acknowledges that such “Jetson-Set” features are perhaps the most futuristic of QoLT’s ideas.

Industry Partners

Pilot projects to test some of these concepts clearly are not futuristic; they’re already happening. Presbyterian SeniorCare has completed one clinical trial, with others planned.

“Their interest is in seeing which people will thrive in a visiting nurses situation,” Osborn says. “They see this whole home operation as a growing part of their business.”

The second test bed is set for McKeesport, where the nonprofit Blueroof Technologies, with the assistance of McKeesport Independent Zone, will develop a community of 15 to 20 single-family smart cottages. The prototype home is complete and serving as a laboratory and model.

Osborn projects that the technology will add about $10,000 to the cost of each smart cottage but that residents will recoup part of that through an energy management feature. And of course, $10,000 is a drop in the bucket compared to the assisted living charges that residents may be able to avoid.

In addition to developing privacy guidelines for such far-reaching monitoring, the trials will probe what services residents want and which they find intrusive.

“We know robots can clean rooms and cook,” Kanade says. “The question is, do people like it? We shouldn’t sell what is not needed. In fact, we shouldn’t sell at all. Engineers should educate customers. This is probably the biggest challenge.”

Ultimately, NSF funding will carry QoLT only so far, but both Kanade and Osborn expect the private sector to step up in the form of funding, partnerships, perhaps even leadership in meeting some of the needs QoLT research identifies.

“We’re chartered to do things that make a transformative change; disruptive technologies are what we’re pursuing,” Osborn says. “At the same time, there could be good business opportunities in short-term projects by taking technology that exists, pulling in some people who know how to make that engineering next step and doing so.”

Indeed, QoLT already has partnered with such firms as Honeywell, IBM, Intel, Johnson & Johnson, Sanyo, Sony and locally based BodyMedia. iRobot, another industry affiliate, has committed a squad of its Roomba automated vacuum cleaners.

“We have to expand the basis of our funding,” Kanade says. “It should come from industry. And considering that this demographic is definitely and steadily growing, it will be industry. I don’t know yet what it will look like, but eventually, the ‘Quality of Life Technology Kit’ will be available at The Home Depot.”
Evan Pattak is a Pittsburgh freelance writer and publicist. His work appears regularly in TEQ, Pennsylvania Manufacturer and Hoof Beats. This is his first feature for Pop City.


Robot hand in Professor Nancy Pollard's laboratory at CMU's Robotics Institute

Takeo Kanade

MX40 camera from Vicon

Jim Osborn

Research model graphic

Professors Jessica Hodgins, Jim Osborn and Takeo Kanade

All photographs copyright © Brian Cohen

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