Robot makes sure seniors stay safe

Nick Forcier, a technician with the Fairfax technology company INF Robotics, simulates a patient calling for help in an emergency, to which the robot, Rudy, would automatically call 911.
Photo by Dan Schere

An 85-year-old is cooking at the stove. The phone rings and he or she steps away to answer the phone — and forgets the stove completely. That’s problematic, because kitchen fires caused by cooking accidents such as unattended or forgotten pots on the stove are among the most common sources of fires in seniors’ residences.

A robot named Rudy, set to debut this year, is programmed to turn off the stove before an accident can happen. Rudy also allows professional caregivers to remotely check in with seniors, make sure they get enough exercise and remind them to take their medication.

According to Anthony Nunez, CEO of Fairfax-based INF Robotics, which manufactures Rudy, the robot’s function is to help seniors avoid injuries, stay physically and mentally active and communicate with their caregivers using one device.

Rudy has a camera and screen so that caregivers, using a video chat app on their mobile device, can speak with their seniors and send them reminder messages. Family members can do the same.

Rudy responds to voice commands and will call 911 in an emergency.

The 4-foot-tall robot can play music and dance, too.

INF Robotics spent six years building Rudy. The company tested the robot in five senior living communities around the Washington area as well as with amputees in the Department of Veterans Affairs facilities. Nunez said the company has four Rudy units that Washington-area home care agencies will be able to begin renting this month for $99 a day.

During an interview, INF technician Nick Forcier demonstrated how a senior would communicate with Rudy by giving a series of voice commands.

“Rudy,” Forcier said.

“Yes, how may I help?” the robot answered.

“Come here,” said Forcier.

The robot, on wheels, rolled to where Forcier was standing and then asked if he had reached him, to which the technician responded, “yes.”

“Hooray,” Rudy replied.

Rudy’s sensors track the location of its senior. Forcier said the robot can respond to a voice command even if the person is in another room. The technology is sophisticated enough to tell the difference between a human command and a pet noise.
Later, Forcier asked Rudy to dance, and Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” began playing through a speaker as the robot twisted back and forth. The twisting, Forcier explained, was to entice a senior to move about. Rudy can also play “Rudy Says,” to engage seniors both mentally and physically.

“We’ve seen with home care agencies, they’ve said to patients, ‘Hey, we need you to get up and move,’” Nunez said. “But when told to be active, [seniors] don’t respond.”

Forcier then demonstrated the caregiver app by logging in on his laptop, which pulled up the camera view of the room from Rudy’s perspective.

“I will now be controlled by your healthcare provider,” the robot said.

Nunez said caregivers typically check in with their seniors three times a day. With Rudy, Nunez said, minor issues otherwise undetected can be fixed on the spot.

Caregivers can also send a short message such as “take your meds” onto Rudy’s screen. If the senior completes the task, a box in the app will turn from green to black. If they neglect the task for several hours, the box changes color from green to yellow to red. When the box turns red, Nunez said, the caregiver is advised to check in personally with the senior.

Rudy can’t do everything a caregiver does. Due to privacy considerations, Rudy does not record seniors. And it can’t feed someone or get them out of bed.

But Rudy does accept long-distance calls. “If you go on vacation you might get concerned about leaving your patient behind,” Nunez said. “We’ve done tests all the way from Europe to here.”

But unless the cost drops, there’s unlikely to be a Rudy in every in-law suite anytime soon.

Rudy, by the way, is not an acronym or the name of anyone’s grandfather. Nunez said INF chose the name because it sounded gender neutral. And during testing, seniors often dressed their Rudy —veterans added some military gear, others added clothing. So whether outfitted as Rudy Huxtable of “The Cosby Show” or former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the robot will be a helpful companion.

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