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Silver economy spurred on by robotics

Monday, August 17, 2015
Science and Society

It is estimated that globally there are over 470 million people 65 years and over. That is a little less than seven per cent of the population of the world. The actual percentage for the developed world is quite higher. Further, this cohort is estimated to grow to some 820 million by 2025. 

The “silver economy” has thus been a reality in many countries and the pace of development of technology to assist the elderly is increasing, particularly in Japan, USA and Western Europe. T&T’s elderly population is above 10 per cent and is also expanding and thus it is timely that attention is being paid to it. 

As humans grow older, both strength and mobility are impacted. To ensure that the quality of life of the elderly is not unduly compromised, assistive technologies have been developed. These include single-person staircase escalators and electric wheel chairs for mobility and ICT devices to allow for easy communication with loved ones and caregivers. 

Robotics is being seen as an area with tremendous growth potential and accordingly effort is being expended in that direction. It is giving rise to new and innovation technologies and will, in all probability, become a significant component of many economies, more so as Internet connectivity and capacity improve and increase.

Individual and institutional care givers have, on a daily basis, to pick up patients. This act is quite stressful on the back and thus exoskeleton robotic-like devices would be a boon to them. Such devices already exist is industry for loading cargo and equipment. Lightweight ergonomically designed exoskeletons would find a ready market, not only in nursing homes, but also among the independent-minded elderly.

Sitting up and getting of the bed are also activities that many old and or sick people find quite difficult. This is being addressed by the development of innovative technologies. Beds are being developed that can both raise the person to a sitting position and double up as a wheel chair. This technology would completely remove the need to stand up to be transferred, which is when falls are likely happen. 

Another promising development is that of telepresence robots. In fact, last month, President Obama welcomed one into the White House. In Sweden, clinical trials of such devices are being conducted as they can offer an efficient and cost effective mechanism for home-based caregiving. This is possible as patients can be seen and spoken to from remote locations (hospitals, clinics and doctors’ offices in layman language.) 

When this technology is combined with automated home health systems in which sensors monitor and record health parameters like blood pressure and body temperature, then effective diagnoses and advice can be dispensed without the doctor having to be physically present in front of the patient as he/she would have the necessary information to make an informed decision. 

One other important attribute of telepresence robots is that they can detect if one is still for a long time and will thus make the necessary alerts. 

The silver economy presents T&T with an excellent opportunity to develop and adapt assistive technologies for use here and worldwide. This requires multidisciplinary design teams and high-end design and fabrication facilities. This kind of enterprise is exactly what is envisaged by Niherst Science City, where doctors, engineers and technologists can design, fabricate and do clinical studies on new and innovative assistive technologies or adapt and induct emerging technologies for use in hospitals and nursing homes.

Within the framework of a national S&T policy that harmonises the R&D effort of the health institutions, the universities and other interested parties, robotics technology-based technology enterprises can develop into an important element of the diversification effort.


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