A first-of-its-kind robot which gives clinicians the ability to ‘feel’ patients remotely has been launched as part of a Finnish hospital pilot by deep tech robotics company Touchlab, a new tenant of the world-leading centre for robotics and artificial intelligence the National Robotarium.

Controlled by operators wearing an electronic haptic glove, the Välkky telerobot is equipped with the most advanced electronic skin (e-skin) technology ever developed to transfer a sense of touch from its robotic hand to users. E-skin is a material which is made up of single or multiple ultra-thin force sensors to transmit tactile sensations like pressure, vibration or motion from one source to another in real-time.

The 3-month pilot at Laakso Hospital in Helsinki, Finland will see a team of purpose-trained nurses explore how robotics systems can help deliver care, reduce workload and prevent the spread of infections or diseases. The pilot at Laakso Hospital is coordinated by Forum Virium Helsinki, an innovation company for the City of Helsinki. The research is part of a wider €7 billion project aimed at developing the most advanced hospital in Europe, due to be completed in 2028.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO)1, 15% of patients in low- and middle-income countries acquire at least one health care associated infection (HAI) during their hospital stay. On average, 1 in every 10 affected patients die as a result of their HAI.

With over 43,000 registered nursing vacancies in England2, it is hoped that Välkky will complement existing staff, freeing up people to focus on more complex nursing tasks while allowing the robot to carry out day-to-day clinical duties like measuring vital signs including pulse, temperature and oxygen saturation. It is also able to serve meals, move assistive devices and support patient care with tasks like brushing hair.

Additional applications for the technology could include nuclear decommissioning and the handling of toxic waste, helping reduce human exposure to jobs that are potentially hazardous to people’s health and wellbeing.

Touchlab is an Edinburgh-based start-up and has recently taken up residency at the National Robotarium, a pioneering new £22.4 million research facility which officially opened its doors in September 2022.

Informed by sectoral needs, the facility works collaboratively with partners around the globe to define, develop and resolve industry challenges through the application of robotics and AI. Touchlab will benefit from the National Robotarium’s incubation facilities, state-of-the-art labs and engineering expertise. 

The National Robotarium is part of the Data-Driven Innovation initiative, supported by £21 million from the UK Government and £1.4 million from the Scottish Government. The initiative aims to turn Edinburgh into the data capital of Europe and is part of the wider £1.3 billion Edinburgh and South-East Scotland City Region Deal.

Kirsi Ahonen is Head Nurse and project manager at Laakso Hospital. She said:

“Envisioning a future where robots and caregivers collaborate seamlessly is something I find incredibly exciting. Our long-term goal is for Välkky to assist in a variety of day-to-day ward tasks to ensure the delivery of comprehensive patient monitoring and care.

“While Välkky will initially be deployed on a smaller scale, undertaking tasks like retrieving fallen items or taking patient vitals, it has the potential to help with a number of more complex jobs. This includes patient-lifting, which could help alleviate potential physical injuries for staff, and reducing the spread of infection.

“The integration of cutting-edge robotics into our healthcare team marks an exciting milestone and innovative technology like Välkky has the potential to revolutionise how we deliver patient care, support our dedicated staff and continue to provide exceptional care for our patients.”

Touchlab CEO, Dr Zaki Hussein, said:

“In the past, telerobots have been limited to being able to see, hear and speak on behalf of the people using them. Now, thanks to our innovative e-skin technology, robots like Välkky can ‘feel’ too – and not only on their fingertips.

“This ground-breaking pilot with our partners at Laakso Hospital is helping to enable new and unprecedented applications in robotics. It’s our ambition that the anonymised, real-time data gathered throughout the project will help prove that semi-autonomous robots can co-exist with and support professionals in a variety of industries like healthcare and the transition to greener energy sources.

“Having access to the National Robotarium’s state-of-the-art office and lab facilities, including its ecosystem of collaborators, industry experts and academic teams, will support us to put these findings into action and to continue developing impactful robotics technologies that are changing our collective futures.”

Lisa Farrell is Business Development Manager at the National Robotarium. She said:

At the National Robotarium, we work hand-in-hand with dynamic partners at the forefront of AI and robotics technologies, creating innovative solutions to global challenges that have a positive impact on society.

“As robotic and AI technologies continue to advance, we increasingly have the opportunity to support people in jobs that are potentially hazardous to their health or physical wellbeing. Touchlab’s Finnish pilot exemplifies that opportunity, with benefits of the trial expected to include increasing nurse productivity and, significantly, reducing the spread of healthcare acquired infections.

“Working with tenant companies like Touchlab, the National Robotarium continues to be a globally significant collaborative hub – bringing together academics and industry-leading companies, acting as a catalyst for entrepreneurship and delivering sustainable economic benefit to the whole of the UK and beyond.”

UK Government Minister for Scotland, Malcolm Offord, said:

“This pioneering research into remote robotic touch technology has great potential to deliver vital assistance to health staff, improve patient care, prevent the spread of infections or diseases and reduce human exposure to hazardous jobs such as handling toxic waste.

“The UK Government has invested £21 million in the National Robotarium to foster their world-leading research and support high quality jobs, investment and growth, as part of our £2.3b pound investment to level up across Scotland.” 

Neil Gray, Scottish Government Wellbeing Economy Secretary, said:

“This pioneering research is a further example of the important work conducted at the National Robotarium, which benefited from Scottish and UK Government support through the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal.

“Using robots to carry out routine clinical duties can free nurses to perform more complex tasks and revolutionise the delivery of health care. Innovation and the use of ethical and trustworthy artificial intelligence can help deliver priorities in our National Strategy for Economic Transformation.”

Narcís Miguel i Baños, Head of Mobile Manipulation at PAL Robotics, said:

“Touchlab uses the latest robotics innovations very impressively to help address some of healthcare’s current challenges at Laakso Hospital. Välkky robot is built using our platform – TIAGo robot was designed by PAL Robotics to be a collaborative robot that works with humans for use cases such as health and industry, and the Laakso Hospital project fits perfectly with this.

“Our aim has always been to push forward robotics research to enable robot assistance in our daily lives to become more and more mainstream. Touchlab’s pioneering e-skin enhances the robot’s capabilities further in order to help achieve exactly that, and we’re very excited to see how the project progresses.”

About National Robotarium

The robotics and AI facility is part of the Data-Driven Innovation initiative and is supported by £21 million from the UK Government and £1.4 million from the Scottish Government through the £1.3 billion Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal – a 15 year investment programme jointly funded by both governments and regional partners. 

The National Robotarium is a partnership between Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh which combines Heriot-Watt’s engineering heritage and strengths in robotics for hazardous environments, manufacturing, healthcare, and human-robot interaction with the University of Edinburgh’s expertise in space, construction, and humanoid robotics. 

Funded by the Edinburgh and South East Scotland City Region Deal, the National Robotarium supports the Deal’s overarching objective of accelerating growth by attracting inward investment and talent. The National Robotarium building will open on Heriot-Watt’s Edinburgh campus in 2022. 

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About Touchlab

The biggest barrier to mass robot adoption is their inability to feel the world around them. Touchlab is changing this by manufacturing an e-skin system thinner than human skin which can be wrapped around hard or soft robots to sense pressure, location, and direction in real-time. We are applying it to grand challenges that benefit existing and unrealised markets including dexterous grasping automation, medical, and nuclear decommissioning. We are also proud to be a finalist in the global ANA Avatar XPRIZE competition, enabling teleoperated robot Avatars. 

Edinburgh-based Touchlab have developed low-profile tactile sensors which can be wrapped around robots as an e-skin, to give the robot an intuitive, human-like sense of touch. This is crucial, as even basic tasks such as picking up objects require an understanding of touch. Without this sense, a robot can damage or drop items, making telerobots clumsy and unsuitable for real-world applications. The start-up has recently received Seed funding from one of the biggest deep tech investors in Europe, Octopus Ventures, and sees the sense of touch as the enabling factor for Telerobotics. 

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