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Robot Dials 9-1-1

uBOT-5 can delicately pick up objects up to a few pounds, including packages left at a door step. (Image credit: University of Massachusetts)

The U.S. medical system faces an imminent crisis as baby boomers age into retirement, but an army of little helper robots might soften the blow.

Researchers designed a two-wheeled robot, known as uBOT-5, with two arms capable of picking up small objects, using a stethoscope and even dialing 9-1-1. Sensors near its video-screen head can also figure out if someone has fallen.

“For the first time, robots are safe enough and inexpensive enough to do meaningful work in a residential environment,” said Rod Grupen, a computer scientist at the University of Massachusetts (UMass) Amherst.

Grupen helped develop uBOT-5 in response to the growing crisis faced by the U.S. medical system as almost 78 million baby boomers begin joining the 65-and-older crowd during the next three decades.

He noted that it costs about $65,000 to build a single robot in the lab, but told LiveScience that manufacturers have said it might cost only a "couple of thousand" to mass-produce the automatons. A part-time, human in-home caregiver can cost more than $1,500 per week.

Aside from its life-saving abilities, uBOT-5 can also remind people to take their medication, pick up packages and do some cleaning and shopping. It can even administer virtual house calls from doctors using a Web cam, microphone, touch-sensitive LCD screen and Internet connection — tools that Grupen said clients should find other uses for.

“Grandma can take the robot’s hand, lead it out into the garden and have a virtual visit with a grandchild who is living on the opposite coast,” Grupen said.

UMass computer scientists Allen Hanson and Edward Riseman helped Grupen design and build uBOT-5, along with graduate students Patrick Deegan, Emily Horrell, Shichao Ou, Sharaj Sen, Brian Thibodeau, Adam Williams and Dan Xie.

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