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Video: Robot therapist works alongside physicians

Wed 20 Jul 2016

Scientists in Singapore are trialling a massage therapist robot to free up the workload of physiotherapists under the increasing pressure of an ageing population.

Emma, or Expert Manipulative Massage Automation, has been built by local startup AiTreat and developed by Nanyang Technological University graduate and physician Albert Zhang. The bot is currently undergoing clinical testing at the Kin Teck Tong medical institution, and has already been used on 50 patients suffering from conditions including tennis elbow, lower back pain, stiff neck and shoulders, and muscle strains.

Physiotherapists begin the treatment by physically directing Emma on the style of massage required. From this point, the robot takes over control, using a 6-axis robotic arm, a 3D stereoscopic camera to visualise the area and a customised, 3D-printed pressure-sensitive massage tip. The massage arm monitors patient responses, altering pressure if pain is detected and measuring progress of muscle stiffness.

The data collected by Emma is uploaded to a Microsoft-supported cloud environment, so human therapists can keep an eye on patient progress over time and change up treatment methods when necessary.

As the current trials come to an end, the Emma team hopes to develop a second generation massage robot which will improve on the size and mobility of the existing model. For now, there is no suggestion of when a commercial Emma may be made available.

‘This is probably the first such robot in the world developed specifically for use by Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) physicians and sports therapists. Our aim is not to replace the therapists who are skilled in sports massage and acupoint therapy, but to improve productivity by enabling one therapist to treat multiple patients with the help of our robots,’ said Zhang.

Coco Zhang of Kin Teck Tong, added that the new technology holds the potential to provide significant innovation, particularly in the traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and sports science sectors.

She commented: ‘Like many developed countries, Singapore has the problem of an ageing population. Over the next decade, more people are going to suffer from physical ailments such as arthritis and will be seeking treatment.

‘However, as the younger generation prefer knowledge-based jobs rather than physically intensive jobs such as massage therapists, there will likely be a shortage of trained therapists in future.’

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