The University of Illinois is working on developing mini-drones capable of transporting objects across a room. These little independent aircraft, directly inspired by the Cinderella film, could become real assistants in the daily lives of senior citizens.

Autonomous drones soon assisting elderly people in the home ?

People aged 65 and older will account for close to 20% of the US population by 2030. Meanwhile, over nine out of ten senior citizens in the United States suffer from at least one chronic medical condition. Digital solutions are now appearing to help the elderly to cope better with their health issues, not least so that they will be able to stay in their own homes for longer. “There are two types of approach when it comes to technologies for senior citizens: those which focus on managing a particular illness or problem, supporting people suffering from Alzheimer’s for example, and those which serve a wider purpose, such as helping older people to live longer at home,” Professor Naira Hovakimyan of the University of Illinois told the audience at the Aging 2.0 conference in San Francisco in mid-October.

Cinderella’s little birds becoming reality ?

Professor Hovakimyan’s team was really keen to work on the second category, drawing inspiration from Walt Disney’s version of the Cinderella story. Remember the scene where the little bluebirds fly around Cinderella when she wakes up, helping to make the bed, laying her clothes out ready on the chair and handing her a sponge so that she can wash? Along similar lines. engineers from the Coordinated Science Lab, a research laboratory that is part of the University of Illinois, are now developing autonomous, silent mini-drones that are capable of moving objects within a given space and collecting real-time data on the occupants. These smart robots, the size of your hand, are already able to avoid obstacles and transport such items as medicines. The current prototype is also being equipped with an articulated arm so that the drone can actually pick up small objects like a packet of tissues or a glass of water and carry them across the room.

Robots assisting the elderly at home

So far all tests have been conducted in secure, controlled environments. In fact the very first simulations were carried out in virtual spaces using the Illinois Simulator Lab (ISL), a high-tech virtual reality facility which is also part of the University, and experiments in actual homes are still some way off. In the longer term, Professor Hovakimyan hopes that these drones will be able to carry out tasks that will help older people suffering from reduced mobility, just like a human assistant. Cinderella’s bird helpers will then have become reality! Appropriately, the project title is NICER, for Non-Intrusive Cooperative Empathetic Robots. “We want our robots to be non-intrusive and to blend in with the decor of the home. In order to achieve this goal, we need to understand the psychological aspects that lie behind Man-Robot interaction,” underlined the University of Illinois professor.

By Pauline Canteneur