Healthcare robot with electronic skin developed by Scottish team

Välkky telerobot has first-of-its-kind ‘sense of touch’, enabling medical staff to ‘feel’ patients remotely – and help stop the spread of infections. 

The robot, produced by Edinburgh-based Touchlab Robotics, is taking part in a three-month pilot scheme at Laakso Hospital in Helsinki, Finland.

Valkky robot with nurses, copyright Forum Virium Helsinki

Välkky is controlled by operators wearing an electronic haptic glove. The advanced e-skin material in its hand is made up of ultra-thin force sensors to transmit tactile sensations such as pressure, vibration or motion from one source to another, all in real time. 

This is important because data from the World Health Organisation (WHO) reveals that patients in low and middle-income countries acquire at least one healthcare associated infection (HAI) during a hospital stay. On average, 1 in every 10 of affected patients die as a result. Remote treatment could lower the spread of infection – and save a lot of lives. 

It’s also hoped that such robots can free up medical staff for more complex roles by taking on their more basic duties. These might include clinical checks of patients’ pulse, temperature and oxygen saturation, and other work such as serving meals or supportive patient care like brushing hair.  

That could really benefit hospitals in the UK. Earlier this year, Nursing Times reported more than 43,000 registered nursing vacancies in England.

Operator in chair with Valkky robot, copyright Forum Virium Helsinki  

The Välkky robot has been developed by Touchlab, an Edinburgh-based start-up that recently took up residency in the city’s National Robotarium, a £22m research facility that opened in September 2022. 

Informed by sectoral needs, the National Robotarium works collaboratively with global partners to define, develop and resolve industry challenges through the application of robotics and AI. Touchlab now benefits from its 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 £1.4m from the Scottish government. The initiative aims to turn Edinburgh into the data capital of Europe and is part of the wider £1.3bn Edinburgh and south-east Scotland city region deal. 

The Välkky pilot scheme is co-ordinated by innovation company Forum Virium Helsinki, with the research part of a wider €7bn project aiming to develop the most advanced hospital in Europe, for completion in 2028. 

Kirsi Ahonen, Head Nurse and Project Manager at Laakso Hospital, says: ‘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. 

‘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.’ 

Dr Zaki Hussein, CEO of Touchlab, adds: ‘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.’ 

In related news, a year-long series of projects at Dounreay is exploring how remote-operated robot ‘dogs’ can help with the decommissioning of nuclear power stations, keeping human operators safe.

Photos courtesy of Forum Virium Helsinki


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