The U.S. Food and Drug Administration may have recently approved iRobot's telepresence robot RP-VITA for use in hospitals, but as far as medical robots are concerned Japan and Korea remain ahead of the curve. The latest in a line of nurse droids is the KIRO-M5, a compact transportation robot that can carry supplies, sterilize and deodorize the air, and alert nurses when the elderly patients need their diapers changed.
The Korea Institute of Robot and Convergence, a division of the Pohang University of Science and Technology (POSTECH), began work on the KIRO-M5 in early 2011 and is now conducting trials at nursing homes. Korean engineers have been developing robots for the "silver generation" over the past decade, including some that wouldn't look out of place on the set of the original Star Wars. The 1 meter (3.28-ft) tall, 80 kg (176-pound) KIRO-M5 looks utilitarian by comparison, but that seems appropriate given its prime directive.
The robot performs daily wake-up calls, informs residents when food is served, schedules their daily exercise, and has an alarm function should an emergency arise. Besides sniffing the air to detect soiled diapers, the KIRO-M5 also has a pair of handles so it can be used as a robotic walker. It's not clear how long its batteries last, but similar robots like Panasonic's Hospi can operate for 8 hours to a charge.
The idea is that the robot should always be nearby, though it keeps a safe distance when traveling with its bumper sensors, obstacle-detecting laser, and ultrasonic range finders. At night, its front facing camera allows nurses to keep an eye on things at their station without having to make the rounds themselves.
One official stated that nurses working at more than 500 geriatric facilities throughout the nation – and Korea's aging population – will benefit from the support of robots like the KIRO-M5.
Once the initial trials have been completed, suggestions from both the nurses and patients will influence new features. The plan is to commercialize the technology as the country strives to build state-of-the-art medical facilities. Robots like this one are not yet commonplace even in Japan, but the expected market for such devices fuels their development.