Assisted living lab image

Colin Foskett, Head of Innovation at Blackwood Homes & Care image
Colin Foskett, Head of Innovation at Blackwood Homes & Care

Colin Foskett, Head of Innovation at Blackwood Homes & Care, shares how his company is benefitting from collaborating with academia when developing technology that aids independent living.

Robots have great potential to improve the lives of people in the care sector: not only can they support care workers with the physical work involved, but they also provide opportunities to increase the independence of people with assisted living needs and send more timely and adapted responses to emergencies. Blackwood has been developing new ways in which robots and automation can be used in care, and the collaboration with academics from the National Robotarium has been invaluable in this journey.

Accelerate the transition between theory and practice

Working alongside academics provides Blackwood with the tools and support to design and implement innovative technology more efficiently. Even a great concept is not enough to create a viable, cost-effective and beneficial product, as the process of developing and integrating new technology can be slow and complicated. Working with people who have experience in developing products with practical uses and who are aware of the potential challenges and limitations of technology is key to surmounting these barriers, while putting in place projects and moving ideas from the laboratory and into real-life settings.

Additionally, academic collaboration supports our ethos of incorporating end-user participation in the design of housing facilities; working as part of a collaborative group supports this goal.

For example, working with the National Robotarium, the world-leading robotics and AI facility delivered in partnership by Heriot-Watt University and the University of Edinburgh, has been hugely valuable in exploring Blackwood Homes’ CleverCogs project. This is a digital system delivered through a tablet that keeps carers connected to patients and helps people become more independent. It supplies a night support service, facilitating a greater sense of autonomy for patients alongside reassurance of their safety and security. Meanwhile this lessens the need for carers to sleep over, giving them peace of mind that technology is ensuring the wellbeing of the resident.

When adapting this project to practical uses, the team faced technical challenges. The product is delivered through a secure two-way video call, which helps responders assess the situation quickly. However, this meant that the home occupant had to be visible at all times, posing issues of privacy and feasibility.

The National Robotarium helped come up with a solution where a robot could transport the camera to the patient, avoiding the need to install cameras in every room. Additionally, the team explored issues of acceptance of robots in our daily lives to understand potential resistance to the implementation of new technology like this. As such, this collaborative work is accelerating the process of implementing the CleverCogs technology, producing results that are more adapted to everyday needs.

Create a product for the patient

Collaborating with academia has been key to creating products and services tailored to our patients’ needs and preferences. Blackwood is committed to using robotics to enhance people’s quality of life. Working with academia is a way to pursue this vision by collaborating with like-minded groups who are passionate about creating innovative products and want to produce positive and sustainable outcomes to promote independent living using technology.

When working on the Blackwood House Project, a smart home designed to answer the needs of people with limited mobility, it was essential that the home was well designed to create a space that was not only practical and connected but also beautiful. This vision was adopted by the academic group: the National Robotarium drew on knowledge and insights from care workers in the OpenAAL project to provide guidance on the way the Assisted Living Labs at the National Robotarium could be designed. For example, the Blackwood House can be retrofitted to support the independent living of someone in a wheelchair, with wall units automated to descend towards individuals, but without being obviously adapted. In this sense, working with academia can be valuable in developing practical yet well-designed solutions to certain challenges through co-creation of products alongside the people they are destined for.

Help de-risk investment

Working with academia is an efficient and sustainable way to de-risk investments. Not only does it decrease the risk of faulty technology designs by drawing on the expertise of academics, but the researchers also play a central role in developing ways in which the products can be tested before they are mainstreamed.

Indeed, instead of buying a robot to test out technologies when designing products, we can confer with our academic partners to ensure the efficiency of the products. The National Robotarium’s ‘living labs’ are spaces where robotics and technology-driven solutions are tested in real life situations, often involving end-users. As such, collaborating with academics creates opportunities for better product development through repeated testing and feedback, ultimately decreasing the risk of investment in new technologies.

This collaboration is also key in making technology and connectivity accessible to all: by decreasing the risk of investment, more up-to-date technologies can be put in place, allowing products to be more efficient, affordable and accessible. For example, we worked together to create a robot that gives virtual tours to people with limited mobility, thus allowing them to test a living space and ensure it is fit for their needs before moving into the home.

Diversify networks and opportunities

Working with academia opens up opportunities for collaboration and knowledge transfer. By entering academic networks, bespoke housing and care companies have the potential to raise awareness of their projects and discover rising talents. Indeed, collaborating with the National Robotarium has created opportunities for university students to engage in industry-led projects and participate in designing new technologies for healthcare. For example, the Blackwood Design Awards aim to stimulate innovation in independent living, and one of the awards was won by a robotics student at Heriot-Watt University. As such, working with universities is key in sharing knowledge, insights and contacts, increasing potential for new projects and advancements in the care sector.

Likewise, long-term partnerships can be fostered between universities and the health and care sectors, allowing for sustainable technologies to be put in place. For example, the EMERGENCE project includes NHS trusts, housing associations and robotics manufacturers alongside academics. Its purpose is to establish a collaborative network covering the full spectrum of lab to market and incorporating patients and healthcare providers to examine practical applications of robotics in health and social care for the future.

Following its collaboration with the National Robotarium, Blackwood Homes now aims to integrate robotics as a central aspect of its business strategy. This shows how working with academia is valuable to create new insights for development and visualise future opportunities.

Looking to the future

Overall, the collaborative process between academics and the care sector has the potential to reshape industry practice. Developing new technologies that are designed with and for people working in the care sector will enhance the quality of life of the individual end-users by providing them with the support they need, and, more importantly, by allowing them to gain independence and make their own choices. As such, academia has a central role to play in the future of the care sector to contribute knowledge, support and expertise.

About the National Robotarium

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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