Intelligent technologies for residential care facilities

The intelligent care cart travels autonomously to where it is needed.
© Fraunhofer IPA, Heike Quosdorf
The intelligent care cart travels autonomously to where it is needed.
The touchscreen allows the care staff to quickly and intuitively record which care utensils have been consumed.
© Fraunhofer IPA
The touchscreen allows the care staff to quickly and intuitively record which care utensils have been consumed.

It comes when called, bringing care utensils with it and recording how they are used: The intelligent care cart provides care staff with physical and informational support in their day-to-day work. In the collaborative project “Service Robotics for Support with Personal Services” (SeRoDi) Fraunhofer IPA developed an intelligent care cart to assist the care staff in residential care facilities. In doing so, they are continuing in their efforts to improve working conditions in the care sector and are developing solutions designed to address the challenges of demographic change. The development of the service robot was preceded by a comprehensive needs analysis with future user groups. Practical tests are now planned in several care institutions.

Jobs in the nursing sector are both physically and mentally demanding. This has an effect on sickness rates. Particularly older care staff often find it hard to cope with the physical strain and leave the profession before they reach retirement age even though they don’t actually want to. By using assistance systems in home and residential care, routine tasks can be reduced, giving staff more time to interact with inhabitants and patients. They can also help prevent damage to health and make work in care more attractive. Fraunhofer IPA develops innovative service robot technologies and integrates them into intelligent nursing aids, which provide a relief to health care staff.

User- and application-oriented service robotics

Service robotics has so far not been particularly widespread in the care sector. Therefore, it is important to involve potential users at an early stage in the development of new solutions. For this purpose, in several research projects, researchers at Fraunhofer IPA accompanied the care staff on different shifts over a three-day period in order to record and analyze the relevant workflows. Results showed that care carts offer particular potential when it comes to implementing service robot technologies. It would be very useful if care carts could move autonomously to the place where they are needed. This would save care staff time, cut down on the distances they have to walk and avoid them having to leave patients or residents unattended. This especially applies to emergency situations. The current manual documentation of used care utensils is also a time-consuming task. In addition, the materials needed at that moment are often lacking because stocks have not been replenished quickly enough. Technical extensions of the care cart relieving the strain on care staff in these areas as far as time, physical effort and information are concerned, would also offer significant benefits for day-to-day care. 

Funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF), the project “SeRoDi” (service robotics to aid person-related services) aims at technically implementing these benefits, as well as at integrating them into the typical work processes of an in-patient care facility and evaluating the advantages for various groups of people. In the project, Fraunhofer IPA is working on further developing the technology, design and user-friendliness of the service robot. Two elderly care homes and a hospital are testing the service robot in everyday practice.
For technical realization of the intelligent care cart, a set of key requirements was identified based on data collection surveys as well as on currently used care carts. The intelligent care cart was constructed on the basis of MLR’s CASERO 4 platform. The IPA experts used valuable and customary elements such as glove and disinfectant dispensers, a garbage disposal, a folder compartment and easy-to-clean materials. Up to five drawers can be filled with standard ISO module baskets and are compatible with previous maintenance vehicles or transfer and storage systems. At the same time, the experts extend the care cart with new assistance functionality compared to conventional models.

New assistance functions for care carts

The first function is autonomous navigation, enabling the care cart to move independently to the place where it is needed. This is achieved through intelligent navigation technologies designed for mobile robots in unstructured environments. Although autonomous guided vehicles (AGVs) already exist, e.g. to transport laundry in large hospitals, these invariably navigate by following specific pathways, making them unable to avoid obstacles. Consequently, they can only be implemented in separate supply tracts. Thanks to the new technology, the care cart is capable of navigating freely and avoiding obstacles, allowing it to move in areas where patients, residents and members of staff are present. Now, for the first time, mobile robots can be implemented cost-effectively to automate material flows in smaller care institutions.

In addition, available and used care utensils are automatically documented via a user interface on a tablet PC mounted to the work surface specially for this purpose. Via WLAN, data entered by care staff is compared with a data bank. The staff is informed when material stocks run low and can send the trolley to the storage area to be restocked at a time when it is not required. This seamless documentation is achieved by electronically recording all utensils. To do this, each ISO module basket has a transponder chip with a unique code that is read using RFID technology. In this way, each basket contains specific materials and registers the exact quantity of each respective article.

To further improve the system, the project partners are planning to extend the technical functions. One of their aims is to record care utensils via image processing or by reading bar codes. Lists for documenting articles and their consumption would then be generated automatically. As another goal for the next development step, the experts would like to automate changing the ISO module baskets.

Efficient technology transfer

With SeRoDi, Fraunhofer IPA continues its many years of work in the development of service robot technologies for professional outpatient and inpatient care. Many different software and hardware components are available, which can make conventional care aids more “intelligent” according to user requirements. Nursing aids are f.e. provided with technologies that allow them to navigate autonomously or to recognize objects thanks to powerful image processing.
The experts benefit from the results of previous research projects as the development of the service robot Care-O-bot 4 ( The acquired results can be used and tailored to specific application scenarios, such as the care cart described. Once invested resources are used several times and prototypes can be created more cost-effectively. Fraunhofer IPA is available to interested manufacturers and nursing institutions to discuss new ideas for the use of service robots, feasibility studies, prototype development, pilots and evaluations at any time.