Robot reproduces tactile sensations to help nurses

Photo: Olli-Pekka Orpo
Sheila Zabeu -

July 31, 2023

A robot with capabilities to simulate tactile sensations is being tested in a pilot project at a Finnish hospital. The aim is to see how the technology can help reduce nurses’ workload.

Developed by Scottish startup Touchlabs, the robot was named Välkky and uses an electronic skin technology that allows the transmission of tactile sensations, such as pressure and vibration. The robot can perform simple nursing tasks, such as serving meals, assisting with movement and turning off lights, for example. It can also measure vital signs, such as patients’ pulse, temperature and oxygen saturation. It is being tested in one of the wards at Laakso Hospital in Helsinki, Finland, for about two months. Patients on the ward have been informed about the trial.

“The robot is currently being tested to see what it is capable of. Everything is done according to the patients and making sure they are getting the support and care they need,” says Kirsi Ahonen, chief nurse and project manager at Laakso Hospital. According to its creators, the robot has many features that ensure safe use in the hospital environment. Among other things, it senses touch and force in its arms, so it prevents the patient from being pushed. It also has 360-degree vision.

Twelve nurses have been trained to control the robot. In practice, it is controlled via tactile gloves, a control suit or a control chair. “Controlled by a healthcare professional, the robot assists the work of the medical team. It is by no means a substitute for professionals. The staffing situation in healthcare is challenging, and this is a way to assess whether robotics can help in performing tasks that do not require training in the field,” says the hospital.

For fun, staff were able to vote on a name for the new robotic colleague based on the residents’ proposals. “The name Välkky was chosen because it describes the fact that we are now the first in the world to test an entirely new type of robotics in a hospital setting,” explains Ahonen.

The robot uses a wireless network and reproduces in real time the movements of the body, hands, and head of the nurse who controls it. Its electronic skin allows sensation to be transmitted to the nurse’s fingertips, palms and, if necessary, the whole body. The robot is about the average size of a person.

“With the help of the electronic skin, the robot is able to make even subtle movements. Välkky is a unique robot that can only be compared to surgical models, which can also be controlled remotely but have no sense of touch,” says Zakareya Hussein, CEO and founder of Touchlab Limited.

In the future, the robot will be able to treat patients isolated, for example. It will also help reduce the physical strain on nurses.

Medical robotics market and startups

The medical robotics industry was vulnerable in 2022 due to adverse economic scenarios. However, as demand is still very high, the robotics business is expected to continue growing, according to GlobalData, reaching $15.8 billion by 2030.

The healthcare sector is set to increasingly invest in medical robots to compensate for staff shortages and improve the standard of care. The use of cloud computing and Artificial Intelligence will help robots access large volumes of data, generate better results and reduce human error rates. In addition, new models of surgical robots should open up more possibilities for application in more complex treatments.

To meet this demand, startups are acting strongly in the health robotics segment and also receiving support from catalyst programs. One of them is open for its third edition. The Healthcare Robotics Startup Catalyst, promoted by MassRobotics, Festo, Mitsubishi Electric, Novanta and MITRE, offers startups the opportunity to present innovative medical robotics solutions and compete for the chance to join a business accelerator program.

The selected startups will be guided by mentors from the organizing companies and supported to engage with potential customers, investors, suppliers, marketing teams. They will be supported by the MassRobotics Working Group, composed of a group of volunteers from business, academia, government, and venture capital. They will also have access to loans, prototyping and testing resources, and media and marketing support, as well as possible participation in trade shows with mentoring organizations.

The program is open to early-stage startups focusing on robotics, but also on Artificial Intelligence or Internet of Medical Things (IoMT).

MassRobotics is a nonprofit robotics innovation center whose mission is to help create and advance robotics technology companies and connected devices by making space for innovative entrepreneurs and startups seeking to develop, prototype, test, and commercialize products and solutions. Although based in Boston, MassRobotics supports robotic innovation globally, working with startups, universities, the corporate sector and governments, both nationally and internationally.