Missing large sections of time at school due to illness, or detecting a fall in an aged care facility are just two examples of where robots are making a huge difference to people’s lives thanks to the work of a Canberra company.
Some robots can even play chess, albeit via a user on the other side of the screen.
The Canberra company Robots4Good, its CEO and social innovator Megan Gilmour co-founded the company with Marcus Dawe two years ago.
Now, more than 120 telepresence robots, which provide a human-like connection via a secure video link, are connecting people in places such as schools, hospital wards, boardrooms and aged care facilities.
The robot is a remote-controlled, wheeled device with a wide-angle camera and tilting neck that provides a presence much more personal than that of a handheld device or computer.
“It’s all about unlocking human potential to achieve more socialised solutions by connecting people in really important ways when they can’t be there in person,” Megan tells Region Media.
Megan says when her son had to receive a bone marrow transplant 11 years ago, it inspired the idea of using robots so kids like her son do not miss large chunks of school while receiving treatment.
Via the robot, a user is able to securely access it remotely to spend time with another person or people, such as a school classroom.
In the ACT, 15 students have already used the technology to continue their education. Two have had robots since the beginning of 2018.
At an aged care facility in Wollongong, the son of a resident logged in to a robot in his father’s room, only to discover his father had fallen.
“This person navigated the robot from his mobile phone and was able to respond to his father rapidly, which we think really highlights the difference between robots and other forms of technology,” says Megan.
She said the idea came to life through the MissingSchool charity, also started in Canberra, so sick or injured kids are able to dial in to their classrooms and not have to catch up with large chunks of schoolwork (see YouTube video below).
“We’ve supported students with profound disabilities, including a student in Queensland who became a quadriplegic after a horse riding accident, and she uses the robot to dial into her classroom and effectively move around the room via the robot and participate in classroom activities,” says Megan.
The recipient of the robot chooses the people who can log in. The recipient also doesn’t have to hold or press anything and the robot auto-docks itself onto a charging station after calls.
It is also no surprise the technology has been fast-tracked by the COVID-19 pandemic, and Robots4Good holds an exclusive arrangement with OhmniLabs to supply the robots throughout Australia and New Zealand.
They have also been approved by every Australian state and territory education department and can be customised to any environment required.
“Our feedback has shown the robots reduce anxiety around a student’s connection with their peers, which in turn provides a process of support for that student,” says Megan.
“Parents and teachers have reported back to us that the robots solve the problem of absence, which also helps the student’s friendships and increases participation and supports learning.
“In aged care, we’ve shown the ability to help reduce social isolation, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Megan says additional research is currently being conducted that is more substantial than anything else worldwide.
However, her motivation is a simple one.
“It never gets old when you see a child dial in to a robot to see their friends and their classmates,” she says. “It’s just a great moment and definitely makes all the effort worthwhile.”