Ready, steady, go

By Duncan Graham-Rowe IT’S NO laughing matter: thousands of elderly people are injured in Britain each year as a result of accidents with Zimmer frames. A robotic Zimmer that talks could help steer people out of danger and stop them from bumping into things, say computer scientists in Dublin. Even though they are used at a slow pace, Zimmer frames are dangerous, because they are very difficult to use, says Gerard Lacey of Trinity College Dublin. “There are a huge number of accidents with Zimmer frames,” he says. The British charity Help the Aged says there are 7000 Zimmer frame-related accidents every year in Britain. So two years ago, Lacey and his colleagues at Trinity set out to develop a walking assistant that gives better support and navigational help. Their Personal Adaptive Mobility (PAM) aid talks to its user, warning them of impending collisions and letting them know when they come to junctions in the corridor, or simply indicating where doors are. Part of the reason for the accidents is failing eyesight. With around one in four residents in old people’s homes suffering from some degree of visual impairment, accidents are inevitable. PAM has been designed to be pushed so that the user doesn’t have to pick it up like an ordinary frame. It has four wheels which can steer the user out of trouble, but these, explains Lacey, are not motorised in any way—they are purely for guidance. The person operates it much like a normal walking aid, leaning on it for stability. Earlier this year, Anne-Marie O’Neill at Hertfordshire University ran evaluation trials, testing PAM on 38 potential users—with promising results. At first, they were very wary of it, says O’Neill. “For many of them, the most technical thing they use is the wireless or TV.” So the robot had to be fine-tuned to be very simple to use. A laser rangefinder gives the robot readings over a 180 ° sweep in front of it. And where the laser is unreliable, such as when it is confronted by a glass door, six sonar transducers help to fill the gaps. Two of these point upwards to help detect table-tops and overhangs. There are two modes of operation. In manual, it acts like a normal walking frame but tells its user about the environment through a speech interface, which issues such warnings as “Object ahead”. In “assistive mode”, the robot takes control of steering, navigating safely around obstacles. “The thing that always holds domestic robots back is the great expense,” says Lacey. But if you take into account the fact that people want to remain more independent when they get older and that nursing homes are very expensive,
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