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Meet three robots engineered at U of T that could improve – or save – your life

Casper the robot, seen with graduate student Christina Moro, can remind you when to eat and help with meal preparation (photo by Liz Do)

“After the computer and the smartphone, robotics is the next big technology that will change our lives,” Professor Goldie Nejat (MIE) told a hushed crowd of journalists assembled in her lab. “We focus on developing the intelligence and interactive capabilities of robots.”

The group visited three labs in the department of mechanical & industrial engineering on March 1 to learn about University of Toronto expertise in robotics and automation. The visits were part of a four-day tour organized by the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development, Employment and Infrastructure.

Nejat is the Canada Research Chair in Robots for Society, as well as director of the Institute for Robotics and Mechatronics (IRM), which unites multidisciplinary researchers and industry partners working in the fields of robotics and automation. One focus of her research is the development social robots for the elderly that provide assistance with daily living and promote aging in place and quality of life.

“The whole idea of this lab is to help and support people with daily activities that get harder as we get older,” said Nejat.

One reporter asked when humanoid robots will start working inside our homes. “We are now at the point where we can make that prediction,” Nejat said. “More personal robots are about five to 10 years from deployment. It’s very close.”

From robots that can look you in the eye, to robots you can barely see: Professor Yu Sun (MIE, ECE, IBBME), Canada Research Chair in Micro and Nano Engineering Systems, is developing a fleet of minuscule robots to perform tasks as precise as performing surgery on a cell.

One of Sun’s projects involves using robots to select the best individual sperm cell for fertilization, tapping it with a tiny needle to immobilize it, picking it up, and injecting it into an egg cell.

“This is medical robotics at the cellular level, in many ways like the da Vinci surgical robot at the tissue level,” said Sun, referring to the sophisticated system of robotic arms surgeons use to perform complex surgeries less invasively.

“Robots can perform these precise manoeuvres more consistently than humans can. Assisting surgeons with robotic systems can greatly improve the outcome for the patient.”

Meet a few of the IRM robots that may someday help you at home or in the hospital:

Tangy: Tangy is a socially assistive robot designed to facilitate recreational activities and promote social interaction among people with degenerative cognitive conditions, such as dementia. Tangy tells jokes and leads individuals or groups in games of bingo, which exercises memory, recognition and fine motor skills. “Unfortunately, a lot of nursing homes are understaffed and recreational activities are sometimes where those cuts are felt,” Nejat said. “We’re using the robot as a rehabilitation or cognitive intervention tool to see if such robots are effective in prolonging the onset or progression of cognitive impairments while also encouraging social interactions.”

 

Search & Rescue Assistant Robots: After a natural disaster, the clock is ticking: the first 72 hours following a devastating earthquake or tsunami are critical for finding and rescuing survivors. Search & rescue robots can explore and map collapsed buildings in three dimensions, in order to assist rescue workers in stressful and time-critical situations. Robots can be sent into unknown environments where it might be too dangerous for rescue workers. Robots tag the location of survivors on a map they generate. Rescue workers use these maps to isolate their search efforts and increase the number of victims found.

 

LifeForce, the Nano Robot: Part of understanding the causes of genetic disorders is finding out why certain genes prefer to reside in specific locations inside the cell nucleus. This ultra-precise nano robot is capable of extracting a single chromatin from within a cell nucleus without disturbing the rest of the nuclear structures and create a 3D map of the preferred locations of genes. “It’s like a nanometer-sized shovel,” Sun says. “It can robotically shovel target genetic materials out of a single cell nucleus, to understand gene location variations under normal and disease conditions.”