Imagine controlling a robot that is your eyes, ears and feet – meet AV1.

Robot

Telepresence robots could help combat isolation

She’s there in the classroom with all the other kids. She can look around at the other kids. She can see the teacher and hear the lesson. She can ask the teacher a question if she needs to. She can even whisper to other kids nearby.

But this one student is not present in the flesh. In fact, she’s in her bed at home. She has a long-term chronic illness and can’t go to school.

Her eyes and ears in the classroom belong to a robot called AV1. And this student has one advantage none of the other kids have: she can rotate her remote-control head through 360 degrees.

AV1 was built by a Norwegian start-up company, No Isolation, which, having engineered this solution to the problem of the isolation of chronically ill children, is now seeking to do the same for senior citizens.

But there are also many applications of this technology that would help working carers. Imagine being able to take AV1 to work with you so that the person for whom you care can have direct access to you at set times through the day if there is a special need for this, such as them being in hospital, or if a new care worker is at home for the first time? The possibilities are endless.

One of the founders of No Isolation, Karen Dolva, told London’s Observer newspaper recently that she became aware of the profound solitude of somebody bed-ridden when she met a woman whose daughter was dying of cancer. Karen, 26, and her partners, Marius Aabel and Matias Doyle, set out to do something about the isolation issue.

“There are a lot of engineers who don’t want to make something useful,” she told the Observer’s Andrew Anthony. “They want to make something cool.” This trio, though, decided to do something to meet an actual need and took on no less a task than trying to end human isolation.

They started with one overlooked group: sick children. They interviewed children with a range of different health problems and learned that one of the greatest psychological problems such children had to cope with was isolation from their peers: they might be able to keep up with their schoolwork, but they were missing out on the social interaction.

So the No Isolation team designed the telepresence robot now known as AV1.

The AV1 unit, a bust with a rotating head and robot eyes, sits on a desk in the classroom and the child in bed at home controls it via simple controls that can be programmed into an ordinary laptop.

There are now more than 200 AV1s in service in the Scandinavian countries, a few in the Netherlands and one in the UK.

The one in Britain is named Bee – she has her own Facebook page – and through her, 17-year- old Jade Gadd of Durham will be able to go to university.

Jade has a very debilitating illness called hypermobile Ehlers-Danlos syndrome. She was despairing over the impossibility of attending university until her parents heard about No Isolation. They paid £2200 for Bee and she’s been worth every penny of it.

“I have security now because of AV1,” Jade emailed the Observer. “She gave me hope in a very dark time. She has allowed me to make commitments that previously I would have been too worried about not being able to meet. As a teenager, it is incredibly reassuring to know this assistive technology is available and can help me forge my future.” 

But Bee does more for Jade than just providing a presence at university lectures and tutorials. When her mother goes out, she takes Bee with her so Jade can go too. They can go for a drive, chatting back and forth about what they see. Or they can go out together for a coffee and talk with people.

Jade says she sometimes doesn’t feel she’s using Bee. She feels like she’s really there, in the car or the café.

No Isolation hopes to sell between 2000 and 4000 AV1 units in the 2017-18 financial year.

And now the team is turning its attention to the social isolation of older people, a problem requiring different solutions to those achieved by AV1.

“Kids have a base,” Karen Dolva told the Observer. “With school, there’s a network. You don’t necessarily see that with seniors. And of course, there are also mobility issues, memory loss and technology fear. Seniors are a much more diverse group. A 12-year-old is very much a 12-year-old. Two 85-year-olds can be extremely different in their motivation and what family they have around them.” 

No Isolation is taking the same approach it used with the chronically ill children. It’s talking to older people, finding out what their needs are.

And after that? The dream is an end to social isolation. “It’s a problem we’ve dedicated our lives to,” Karen Dolva says. “It’s what we’re going to be doing for the next 50 years.”

One area the No Isolation people might look at is people with disability and their carers.

We might picture a busy carer needing to do the shopping or the housework. With an AV1-type device, the person with disability and the carer could remain in touch; a housebound person could go out with the carer as Jade Gadd goes out with her mum, and help with the shopping too.

There might be manual dexterity problems at the computer-control end of the link: some sort of voice activation might be the answer.

It could be that with an AV1 on wheels, a housebound person could go out for a stroll in the park, alone or in company, or even go to do the shopping. There’s any number of possibilities through this exciting new technology.