The whole concept of digital twins revolves around a digital copy, which functions in unison with reality. This provides better data insights, enables predictive maintenance and makes remote working (sometimes with larger groups) easier. Within the Robots4Care project, Erik van Alphen and his team noticed another advantage: digital twins offer innovation opportunities for robotics.
Robotic assistance in care
Care robots have been around for a while and there seem to be more and more opportunities to deploy them. An employee at Catharina Hospital therefore wondered whether these could not be used for day admissions, says Van Alphen: “In a day admission at cardiology, a patient enters the Cardiac Lounge. They are received and wait there for their treatment. Afterwards, they also come back here to rest before going home. A fairly smooth process, but with staff pressure and of course the risks during the pandemic, the question came up whether a robot could not assist in this by providing information and interacting. With that, the Robot4Care project started.”
Care robots and great promise
The hospital, and so did more healthcare facilities, already had a Pepper-type care robot on hand. These were frequently purchased with great promise, van Alphen explains: “Robots are said to be the future for healthcare, but clearly lack robustness and modularity in their functioning to really add value. This means that what they do is often a limited trick, so many of these robots end up in a broom closet. So our challenge was software-wise; how do we ensure that Pepper can perform that assistance task better and independently in the department? But also, how do we ensure that the control becomes adaptable, even by non-ICT people.”
Virtual innovation with digital twins
The corona measures made on-site testing impossible, so the Robot4Care project diverted to working virtually with digital twins. This turned out to be an unexpected boon for the project, says Van Alphen: “It soon became clear that with a fully functioning digital twin from Pepper, we had the opportunity to make the hardware function more robustly with software improvements. One example is Pepper’s LiDAR navigation, which is limiting in how accurately the robot moves across the department. Students saw that they could adjust its parameters to make this much better. Even better, they saw the possibility of controlling the navigation from the digital twin, allowing the physical Pepper to perform the navigation task much more accurately.”
Doing more with robots
While digital twins in a smart industry application often help to gain more insight into processes, for robots they actually offer opportunities for more robust control. The project is now looking at ways to collect even more data in the digital twin: “We want to place more physical sensors so that the robot can better understand what kind of environment it is in, such as a radar that can pick up environmental sounds and send them on to the digital twin. Data that allows the ‘brain’ function of the digital twin to do its job better. As a result, you can better assess what kind of situation Pepper is entering and you can also make the interaction more human. So we are increasing the cognitive function of the robot with the digital twin.”
Digital Twin Academy
There is still a lot of work to do to really turn Pepper into the dream assistant, but Van Alphen is hopeful now that on-site testing can resume. The link between digital twin and robot has been made, now it can be optimised. The Robot4Care project is run from the High Tech Embedded Systems lectorate and is part of the larger Digital Twin Academy project, which aims to open up digital twins to the wider public through applied research and knowledge sharing. Several other Fontys lectorates and institutes contribute to Robot4Care, such as the lectorate Human & Health. On the application of robotics in healthcare, Fontys-wide discussions take place to bring technology and humans together in the right way. More information about the Digital Twin Academy project can be found on the project page.
The Digital Twin Academy is an Interreg Euregio Meuse-Rhine (EMR) project. The programme is funded by the European Regional Development Fund and is a collaboration of various public authorities, research and education partners and partners from industry.
Author: Guido Segers