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12th August 2015

Wouldn’t it be great if we all had our own healthcare robot?

A robot greeting you with “Hello, I’m your personal healthcare companion” isn’t as far-fetched as Disney’s Big Hero 6 might make you think.

In the film, a science student builds Baymax ‒ an inflatable robot prototype-turned-superhero that’s about to revolutionise the healthcare industry with its ability to check a person’s vital stats and diagnose any health problems as soon as they crop up so they can be treated right away. “If only!” you may say.

This especially sounds like a dream for any parent who’s ever sat up all night wondering why their child is wailing and what they should do about it. It also probably sounds like the stuff of science fiction, but scientists actually aren’t too far off from making it a reality.

Can we expect a real Baymax anytime soon?

Well… yes and no. We’re not quite at the point where we can go down to our local electronics shop and buy a Baymax off the shelf. But did you know that the Disney team was inspired by a visit to Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), where some very clever robotics researchers are developing soft robots intended to assist people, for example those with mobility issues? The nurse/care robots will soon be helping people with everyday activities like feeding, dressing, grooming and cleaning, or with transfers between bed, wheelchair, toilet or bathing area.

Why are the robots soft and not like the traditional ones we’re used to seeing? “Inflatable robots…are extremely lightweight and compliant, making them remarkably safe for physical interaction with people,” says Siddharth Sanan, who worked on developing the robots during his PhD at CMU.

It doesn’t stop there, however. A team at CMU is now working on developing a real Baymax that would be able to monitor a person’s vital stats like blood pressure and temperature. Building the body is entirely feasible, they say, but efforts to create the ‘brains’ and the ability to interact with humans are more challenging and will take some time to get right.

In the meantime, a $10 million competition that kicked off in 2012 has led to a number of research teams developing hand-held devices similar to the tricorder used in the sci-fi TV series Star Trek. The goal is to create a device that accurately diagnoses 16 health conditions (including diabetes, stroke and anaemia) in addition to capturing five real-time health vital signs (blood pressure, temperature, etc), independent of a health care worker or facility. The winner of the contest is due to be announced in January 2016.

What IS out there?

Although we don’t have access to our own Baymax or tricorder to diagnose our health problems just yet, some of the technology that doctors are currently using is truly mind blowing. One example is the ‘smart pill’, which contains an ingestible sensor the size of a grain of sand. After a patient swallows the pill, it delivers data, such as heart rate and activity, from inside the body to a patch worn on the skin. The patch then sends the information to the patient’s smartphone or any other computerised device. Among other things, the pill allows doctors to make sure patients are taking their meds and track any reactions to them.

This helps patients look after themselves better and keeps doctors informed of any potential red flags. The intelligent technology is being used to personalise the treatment of patients with diabetes, cardiovascular disease and psychiatric disorders, among other healthcare areas.

As for robots (albeit not soft, cuddly ones like Baymax), doctors have long been using them as an aid in surgical procedures; with the robots, they can more precisely move tiny instruments inside a patient’s body. Companies have recently teamed up to improve upon the existing models and develop robots that use artificial intelligence. This will allow for minimally invasive operations and give surgeons more control and accuracy than is possible by hand, which in turn is better for the patient.