While the viability for social and support robots is still in question, those that have these robots in their homes need to clean them regularly to avoid spreading illness and bacteria, according to new research from the University of Plymouth.
Robotic pets are used to reduce depression in older adults and people and have been linked to reductions in depression, agitation, loneliness, nursing staff stress and medication use. However, these social robots and robotic support animals acquire bacteria over time and must be cleaned.
In a study, researchers measured the microbial load found on the surface of eight different robot animals after interactions with four long-term care home residents and then again after cleaning by a researcher or long-term care facility staff member. The robotic animals ranged in material from fur to soft plastic to solid plastic, while the cleaning process involved spraying with anti-bacterial products, brushing the fur or vigorously cleaning with anti-bacterial wipes.
In testing, researchers found that most devices gathered enough harmful microbes during 20 minutes of standard use to have a microbial load above the acceptable threshold of 2.5 colony forming units per square centimeter (CFU/cm2). Only two robots remained below this level when microbes were measured after a 48-hour incubation period while the other six robots ranged from 2.56 to 17.28 CFU/cm2. Five of the eight robots had undetectable levels of microbes after cleaning and 48 hours of incubation and the remaining three robots had only 0.04 to 0.08 CFU/cm2 after this protocol.
"Robot pets may be beneficial for older adults and people with dementia living in care homes, likely improving wellbeing and providing company,” said Hannah Bradwell, researcher at the Centre for Health Technology at the University of Plymouth. “This benefit could be particularly relevant at present, in light of social isolation, however our study has shown the strong requirement for considerations around infection control for these devices."
Social robots have struggled to find a place in the market with numerous companies, canceling their production of the robots due to a lack of sales and interest. Two years ago, Mayfield Electronics stopped production on Kuri due to a lack of funding and last year the company making Jibo, a dancing assistant, was closed after failing to meet expectations on sales. Last year, Anki joined this list of canceled robots, also the victim of a lack of funding to continue operations.
The full research can be found in the journal Plos One.