Penelope honoured as one the UK’s top young inventors

  • Date

    Thu 21 Jan 21

Penelope Roberts

PhD student Penelope Roberts is among this year’s winners of the Young Innovators Awards for her work developing socially-aware robotic companions for care homes and hospitals.

Penelope, from our School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering, has set up her own company RoboNurse4NHS to develop semi-autonomous robotic companions which offer users a customisable and personalised assistant, reducing the cost and demand on current services and allowing users to retain their independence for longer.

The Innovate UK and Prince’s Trust Young Innovators Awards recognise young people from across the UK with great business ideas who have the potential to become successful entrepreneurs and future leaders in innovation by tackling some of society’s biggest challenges.

We asked Penelope to tell us a bit more about herself and her research.

How long have you been studying at Essex?

I joined Essex when I started my Masters degree in 2016, then stayed to do my PhD.

Why did you choose to study at Essex?

I chose Essex for my Masters degree as they offered a postgraduate course specifically in robotics and intelligent systems, which is the area I wanted to specialise in. After my Masters, I wanted to continue working specifically in robotics and was offered a studentship for a PhD focused on developing robotics for care homes.

What made you interested in robotics?

I’ve always been fascinated by robots. It started off by watching too many science-fiction films, but during my undergraduate degree I began learning about artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics and how they could actually be used in the real world. I was really interested in all the different types of applications, how they worked and how robots could be used in everyday situations.

When did you form your company RoboNurse4NHS and what is it developing?

The company was formed during the first lockdown. The aim of RoboNurse4NHS is to develop robotic companions that can provide personalised care and companionship to users in care homes. It means combining a growing memory system, a navigation system and social systems together to create a companion that can continuously learn, recall experience, make autonomous decisions and navigate its way through changing environments.

What made you want to take your research in this direction?

My PhD is based on creating robotic companions for care homes and hospitals, so my research was always working towards creating an architecture to allow for that. During lockdown, I started seeing all the areas that a robot companion like this could be useful in real world situations.

Why do we need this technology?

The UK currently has an ageing population and an increasing life expectancy. This means more demand is being placed on health services, with the UK spending around £48 billion on long term care each year. Despite that, there is a lack of carers available to people who need them, which puts additional demand on existing carers and family to fill the gap in caring for people. A robotic companion would be able to help fill this gap by providing constant personalised assistance, reducing the demand on carers and providing increased independence for users.

What are the main challenges with this project?

One of the main challenges is to build a companion robot that can adapt to multiple users with diverse needs to create useful, personalised care. The robot must learn continuously in order to quickly adapt to new changes in either the user or the environment. To do this, it must rely on its own experience to make decisions and actions, without the aid of outside human help.

What are the next steps for your project?

I have a year working with Innovate UK to develop a working prototype for testing, so I’m working on getting an app version of some of the systems to get initial feedback. After that initial step, updated versions can be combined and put onto the robot as a full system. As soon as it’s possible, I’d like to be able to take the robot into actual hospital and care homes and see how people react to it and to further update the software.