Universal design and social care: Assistive robots as other users of the built environment?

Lea Rollová, Peter Hubinský, Natália Bošková Filová


Population ageing is a serious problem, as confirmed by the results of all known national and international population projections. The negative impact of population ageing is manifested in almost all areas, especially threatening the sustainability of social and economic systems. Therefore, solutions are being sought to help people in need of care while also relieving the burden on care staff through technological innovations, including robots.

When investigating the relationship between robots and the built environment, it is necessary to analyse the robots’ ability to move in the environment, and also the possible ways of handling various objects, studying the robots’ possible actions in the environment in which social services are provided. It is also important to create an infrastructure for locating robots in the indoor environment, recharging them, and ensuring the appropriate type of wireless communication between the robot and the building’s infrastructure. A big challenge for the robot is mounting or descending stairs or overcoming other vertical obstacles. Therefore, for the use of a robot as a human assistant in a social services building, it is optimal to ensure a completely barrier-free environment. Another condition for the undisturbed work of assistive mobile robots is the existence of a charging infrastructure.

The following research question was hypothesised: Can a building that is designed according to Universal Design principles be suitable for Assistive Robots? For the purposes of the investigation, a building known as supported housing was selected, in which the social service is to be provided. The selected model building, Type B – Family type house, is an adaptable house with a capacity of 4 to 12 inhabitants, depending on the needs of the service provider, location or size of the plot. This building consists of specialised residential placements that provide ongoing assistance and access to as-needed specialised therapies or treatments. In the premises of the selected model project Type B, size “L”, the movement and functioning of assistive and butler robots was simulated. Our research investigated the functioning of robots in the selected model building, which, together with digital assistants of other kinds, could also provide people with some forms of social care support. Two selected robot models were researched, whose dimensions and the method of movement were taken into consideration during the investigation: (1) Assistive Robot “RIBA II”, and (2) Butler Robot “RELAY+S”. The premises of the model building were analysed for the requirements and functioning of these robots. The analysis is carried out sequentially according to a defined route that passes through all rooms. In each room, the role of the robot is defined, and its space requirements and the required hardware are examined. The location for contact charger spaces in the model home was also investigated.

We compare the space requirements in terms of accessibility for people using wheelchairs and accessibility for robots. The major problems associated with the robot operation in the model project are summarised. In the selected model project, the requirements for bed mobility were taken into account in the design of spaces and doors. The manoeuvring space of a person in a mechanical wheelchair has a diameter (Ø) of 150 cm, which is significantly more than the assessed robots need. This circle must be planned around objects which are being handled for example in front of a door, a table, a cupboard, or by a bed. The Assistive Robot RIBA II can rotate in around a point, so the manoeuvring circle is Ø 110 cm and the Butler Robot RELAY+S rotates around a point, so the manoeuvring circle is only Ø 51 cm.

The model building project, i.e. Type B – Family type house, is largely suitable or adoptable for the purposes of robot movement and operation. We proposed several modifications to it to enable robots to manoeuvre and be used in all spaces as required. More fundamental modifications had to be made in the bathrooms. We took into account the requirements of people with the greatest need for assistance, for example people with muscular dystrophy who need assistance to be transferred from a wheelchair to a toilet or to a shower chair. Adjustments were necessary because the robot needs more space next to a toilet or a shower than a human assistant does when “operating”. We design the charging spots separately for each type of robot to avoid collisions.

Catering to all the unique needs of older people can be a difficult task for those providing personal care, especially as they have many other important responsibilities. Many older adults who are cared for feel boredom, illness, sadness, pain, and loneliness. Current research is looking at the extent to which robots could improve the quality of care. The environment also plays an important role in wellbeing. We see interdisciplinary research as crucial because assistive systems that can help people “age in place” in their own homes can increase the wellbeing and independence of older adults and people with disabilities, reduce the societal cost of care, and at the same time solve the problem of workforce shortages in the health and social care sector.

Keywords: assistive robot, butler robot, architecture, universal design, built environment, social care