Healthcare robot with ‘sense of touch’ could reduce infection spread

2 mins read

A first-of-its-kind robot has been developed which gives clinicians the ability to ‘feel’ patients remotely.

Launched as part of a Finnish hospital pilot by deep tech robotics company Touchlab, the robot can be controlled by operators wearing an electronic haptic glove. The Välkky telerobot is equipped with advanced electronic skin (e-skin) technology that can transfer a sense of touch from its robotic hand to users.

E-skin is a material which is made up of single or multiple ultra-thin force sensors to transmit tactile sensations like pressure, vibration or motion from one source to another in real-time.

Touchlab is an Edinburgh-based start-up and has recently taken up residency at the National Robotarium, a pioneering £22.4 million research facility which officially opened its doors in September 2022.

The 3-month pilot at Laakso Hospital in Helsinki, Finland will see a team of purpose-trained nurses explore how robotics systems can help deliver care, reduce workload and prevent the spread of infections or diseases. The pilot at Laakso Hospital is coordinated by Forum Virium Helsinki, an innovation company for the City of Helsinki. The research is part of a wider €7 billion project aimed at developing the most advanced hospital in Europe, due to be completed in 2028.

Commenting Touchlab CEO, Dr Zaki Hussein, said, “In the past, telerobots have been limited to being able to see, hear and speak on behalf of the people using them. Now, thanks to our innovative e-skin technology, robots like Välkky can ‘feel’ too - and not only on their fingertips.

“This ground-breaking pilot with our partners at Laakso Hospital is helping to enable new and unprecedented applications in robotics. It’s our ambition that the anonymised, real-time data gathered throughout the project will help prove that semi-autonomous robots can co-exist with and support professionals in a variety of industries like healthcare and the transition to greener energy sources.

“Having access to the National Robotarium’s state-of-the-art office and lab facilities, including its ecosystem of collaborators, industry experts and academic teams, will support us to put these findings into action and to continue developing impactful robotics technologies that are changing our collective futures.”

The National Robotarium works collaboratively with partners around the globe to define, develop and resolve industry challenges through the application of robotics and AI. It is part of the Data-Driven Innovation initiative, supported by £21 million from the UK Government and £1.4 million from the Scottish Government.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), 15% of patients in low- and middle-income countries acquire at least one health care associated infection (HAI) during their hospital stay. On average, 1 in every 10 affected patients die as a result of a HAI.

With over 43,000 registered nursing vacancies in England, it is hoped that telerobots could be used to complement existing staff, freeing up people to focus on more complex nursing tasks while allowing the robot to carry out day-to-day clinical duties like measuring vital signs including pulse, temperature and oxygen saturation. These robots could also be used to serve meals, move assistive devices and support patient care with tasks like brushing hair.

Kirsi Ahonen, Head Nurse and project manager at Laakso Hospital said, “The integration of cutting-edge robotics into our healthcare team marks an exciting milestone and innovative technology like Välkky has the potential to revolutionise how we deliver patient care, support our dedicated staff and continue to provide exceptional care for our patients.”

Additional applications for the technology could include nuclear decommissioning and the handling of toxic waste, helping reduce human exposure to jobs that are potentially hazardous to people’s health and wellbeing.