Japan’s workarounds for adult care shortage: robots, exoskeletons, sensors

[grow_thumb image=”http://telecareaware.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/robear.jpg” thumb_width=”150″ /]The problem of Japan’s aging population–the oldest worldwide with 32 percent aged 60+ (2013, RFE)–and shortage of care workers has led to a variety of ‘digital health solutions’ in the past few years, some of them smart, many of them gimmicky, expensive, or non-translatable to other cultures. There have been the comfort robot semi-toys (the PARO seal, the Chapit mouse), the humanoid exercise-leading robots (Palro), and IoT gizmos. Smarter are the functional robots which can transfer a patient to/from bed and wheelchair disguised as cuddly bears (Robear, developed by Riken and Sumitomo Riko) and Panasonic’s exoskeletons for lifting assistance.

Japan’s problem: how to support more older adults in homes with increasingly less care staff, and how to pay for it. The Financial Times quotes Japan government statistics that by 2025 there will be 2.5m skilled care workers but 380,000 more are needed. The working age population is shrinking by 1 percent per year and immigration to Japan is near-nonexistent. Japan is looking to technology to do more with fewer people, for instance transferring social contact or hard, dirty work to robots. The very real challenge is to produce and support the devices at a reasonable price for both domestic use and–where the real money is–export. 

The Abe government in 2012 budgeted ¥2.39bn ($21m) for development of nursing care robots, with the Ministry for Economy, Trade and Industry tasked to find and subsidize 24 companies–not a lot of money and parceled out thinly. Five years later, the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare determined that “deeper work is needed on machinery and software that can either replace human care workers or increase staff efficiency.” Even Panasonic concurred that robots cannot offset the loss of human carers on quality of services. At this point. Japan leads in robots under development with SoftBank’s Pepper and NAO, with Toshiba’s ChihiraAiko ‘geisha robot’ (Guardian) debuting at CES 2015 and Toyota’s ongoing work with their Human Support Robot (HSR)–a moving article on its use with US Army CWO Romy Camargo is here. (attribution correction and addition–Ed.)

The next generation of care aids by now has moved away from comfort pets to sensors and software that anticipate care needs. Projects under development include self-driving toilets (sic) that move to the patient; mattress sensor-supplied AI which can sense toileting needs (DFree) and other bed activity; improved ‘communication robots’ which understand and deploy stored knowledge. Japan’s businesses also realize the huge potential of the $16 trillion China market–if China doesn’t get there first–and other Asian countries such as Thailand, a favored retirement spot for well-off Japanese. In Japanese discussions, ‘aging in place’ seems to be absent as an alternative, perhaps due to small families.

But Japan must move quickly, more so than the leisurely pace so far. Already Thailand is pioneering smart cities with Intel and Dell [TTA 16 Aug 16] and remote patient monitoring with Western companies such as Philips [TTA 30 Aug]. There’s the US and Western Europe, but incumbents are plentiful and the bumpy health tech ride tends not to suit Japanese companies’ deliberate style. Can they seize the day?  Financial Times (PDF here if paywalled) Hat tip to reader Susanne Woodman of BRE (Photo: Robear) 

Robotic exoskeletons are…alive!

It seems like ages–in reality, only two years or so [TTA 19 Dec 15]–that this Editor was writing hopefully about advances in exoskeletons such as ReWalk and Wyss, EKSO plus DARPA research in assisting the mobility of paraplegics and others who need assistance in major movement. And then the news went rather dark, though ReWalk is now in its sixth iteration.

So it is heartening to be able to report that an established healthcare robotics company, Toronto’s Bionik Laboratories, is investing in a joint venture with Boston-based Wistron Corporation, an industrial design and manufacturing company, to further develop the Bionik ARKE lower body exoskeleton. Bionik’s emphasis has been on rehabilitative hospital-to-home upper body robotics to assist patients with regaining mobility. The ARKE appears to be both rehabilitative and assistive for patients in the home. Once developed in the JV, Wistron would be the sole manufacturer. 

According to Crunchbase, Bionik raised $13.1 million in a July 2015 private placement specifically to develop the ARKE (MassDevice). This past May, they raised about $2 million from Hong Kong’s Ginger Capital in a separate JV to sell their robotics into the Chinese market. Bionik partnered with IBM starting last year to develop machine learning to analyze the data generated by the ARKE (FierceBiotech).

The target market for the Bionik/Wistron JV is not in this context a surprise. It is the booming older adult Asian market, where the aging/elderly population is projected to hit 983 million by 2050. Many especially in China and India live in rural areas and aren’t covered by any pension or old-age support (ADB Research). It is not clear to this Editor how expensive lower-body exoskeletons will be supported financially either privately or by government.  Bionik release, FierceBiotech

Cybathlon: six ‘great races’ challenging assistive technologies

[grow_thumb image=”http://telecareaware.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/160215-bike-768×463.jpg” thumb_width=”200″ /]ETH Zurich – The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland–is challenging developers to a one-day Olympic-style competition using assistive technologies to navigate athletic tasks. The races, staged with ‘pilot’ athletes, test the advanced abilities of powered exoskeletons, powered arm prostheses, powered leg prostheses, brain controlled computer games, powered wheelchairs and muscle-stimulated electrical bikes (left, from last year’s competition rehearsal). The end result is to promote and showcase technologies which will be useful for the daily lives of persons with motor disabilities. The event will take place on 8 October at the Swiss Arena in Kloten, Zurich; ETH is also planning a symposium for researchers two days before the competition. ETF website, Medical News Today, GeekWire. Hat tip to Toni Bunting, TTA’s former Northern Ireland/TANN Ireland Editor.