Calgary robotics firm develops robots that help seniors keep in touch with loved ones

Entrepreneur Savana Radley was home recovering from back surgery when she got the inspiration for a robotic assistant that could help seniors who live alone.

“I had my own mobility inhibited for the first time in my life, and I thought, ‘Oh, my goodness, this is actually a glimpse into my future, because we’re all going to get there’ — we’re all going to be in a place where we can’t open bottles or we can’t pick up things from the floor,” Radley told the Calgary Eyeopener.

Radley, who said she has worked in technology firms — including workplace tech firm Benevity and other Calgary startups — said it got her thinking.

“I thought, surely with all of this technology around, it’s all converging, haven’t we come up with something that I can rent?” Radley said. 

“But the answer is actually not really. So that’s where it started.”

Pilot project

Now, Radley’s robotics firm Radley Robots is in the pilot project phase with her telepresence robots, which she describes as “essentially an iPad on a stick on some wheels.”

The robots are able to offer an isolated senior all the technology to stay connected — Zoom calls, Skype, FaceTime, computer access and contact with their loved ones — without the senior having to learn any new technology or touch a device.

“You don’t have to touch anything, we drive the robot,” Radley said.

“The resident calls us, or a friend or a family member calls us directly on a telephone, and … when it’s time for [a video call], we drive the robot to the resident and the call just starts. They don’t have to do anything. They don’t have to learn anything and they don’t have to put their family out.”

Radley said the devices are currently being tested in a Silvera for Seniors facility, a provider of independent and assisted living facilities in Calgary. The devices are being used to help seniors make easy video calls to families.

“One of the things that we found is really interesting is the number of people in these facilities who don’t even try to call their family, because they say, ‘Well, they’re busy all the time, they’re working,'” she said. “They don’t want to be a burden. So we take that piece away from them.”

Technology challenges

Another obstacle for seniors is the technology itself, and that has proven challenging for both staff and residents in care facilities, Radley said.

“The facilities have tried working with iPads, they tried them last summer. And part of the reason they came to us was because they found that about half of the population picked them up and about half of the population didn’t,” she said of the efforts to help seniors isolated due to COVID restrictions, connecting to their loved ones through Skype, Zoom and so on.

The problem, she said, was that even those who embraced the technology needed a lot of technical assistance.

And the other problem was physically sharing the devices.

“If it’s not your iPad, if it’s a shared iPad, then every time it goes into a room, it has to be sanitized and someone’s got to run there and take it down and then bring it back up again,” Radley said. 

“We found that actually in many instances it’s a help for the facility as well, because it means that the people who are there, they just go and do the work they’re supposed to do rather than doing technical support or being delivery people.”

Support systems 

Radley hopes to move beyond assisted living facilities and bring Radley Robots into the private homes of seniors. Each robot, she said, would not be monitored by a support person who could check in on the senior.

The goal would be to offer this technical support service as a way of staying connected and monitoring for safety at a lower cost than bringing in a home care worker.

She said the robots can be rented for $75 per day.

Savana Radley, founder and CEO of Radley Robots, is developing a robot to help seniors. (Submitted by Savana Radley)

At the moment, the initiative is focused on being present as a communication and monitoring service. But that could evolve, Radley said. 

“We are using some robots out of California right now that do actually have the capability to, you can put a tray on them, so you can start moving things around. You can start delivering books if people have left them in the other room or things like that,” she said.

Radley said that although robotics people spend a lot of time working on a functioning “gripper” or hand-type device, she thinks there is more value in having a human being at the other end of the technology for support.

Radley Robots is currently in a pilot program to test the use of hands-free robotic communication devices for seniors. (Submitted by Savana Radley/Bojan89)

Radley hopes that her robotics company will keep expanding once the current pilot project is complete and move into more senior facilities.

“We’re talking to probably four or five other facilities or facility groups here within Calgary,” she said.

“The thing is, everyone’s interested to know how the pilot goes — and I have a feeling that once we conclude the pilot and say this has been the result, this is how many people we were able to help, I think we’ll end up seeing more people take it up.

“This is starting to become more normal. People are starting to see this is a real life thing. It’s not just science fiction.”

  • Listen to the complete interview with Savana Radley, part of our Innovators series, on the Calgary Eyeopener here:

Calgary Eyeopener7:19The Innovators – Radley Robots

For the next story in our Innovators series, we hear about a Calgary robotics firm developing robots to help seniors. 7:19

With files from the Calgary Eyeopener.

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