Josh Astley has used his own experience of an MS diagnosis to design a companion robot for people living with MS. Here, the University of Sheffield student tells us about the inspiration behind his design.
Just under a year ago I first experienced the paroxysmal symptom of Lhermitte’s, I had no idea what this was or what it meant moving forward. Within the month, I was in hospital with a multitude of other neurological symptoms. This was very frustrating and confusing, I had never experienced most of these symptoms before and no idea about what was to follow. After lots of tests and conversations with what seemed like 500 different doctors I was diagnosed as having clinically isolated syndrome. I spent the following year undergoing even more tests, constantly being in and out of hospital before finally being referred to an MS clinic.
Coincidentally, this happened to be the final year of my Mechanical Engineering degree at the University of Sheffield. I was struggling to succeed and started to feel increasingly isolated. I still feel this way sometimes, as we all do, but spending time in an MS clinic and having the support of my supervisor has helped me to find some solace.
By raising awareness and engagement we can create medical aids that work with MS patients, developed with insight and compassion making what can be scary news into slightly less scary news
For my final dissertation I needed to pick a topic. I initially signed up for a title before all this happened and now testing the failure of steel seemed unimportant. Before all of this, I had never met anyone with MS; and engineering in the medical field hadn’t particularly sparked my interest (I was employed by a defence company when all this started). I noticed that, in general, advances in medical engineering had been very generic and often involved the diagnosis of conditions. However, medicine isn’t only about diagnosis, it is about caring for patients. Providing care is the very reason why people are in MS clinics. How we care for the elderly, for those with long term conditions and for those with mental health problems remains the domain of nurses, carers and family members. For the most part, this is a good thing as it allows the patient to interact with the people closest to them, but what happens if this help isn’t available? Care is expensive, it requires paying someone a year-round wage or if you’re lucky, having a family member that can dedicate most of their life to this cause. This is when I heard about Paro, a companion robot given to people with dementia in the shape of a seal. It has been shown to produce positive results for patients, but the most shocking thing for me was the price. Paro is around £8000. I am sure if you have that money it is a very valuable asset, however for the majority of people this is unattainable. I had a project.
I spoke to my supervisor and we ended up settling on a title, ‘Design and Build a Companion Robot for aid in Primary Progressive MS Care’.
M.A.R.C stands for the ‘Medically Aided Robotic Companion’ and he is a panda. The robot can automatically call or send a message to a doctor, measure and record heart rate over time and just for fun it wags its tail when you press a button that says ‘Make me happy’. M.A.R.C is not a commercially available companion robot (I am only an undergraduate engineer!), but the premise is sound. M.A.R.C aims to promote discussion of companion robots more generally, but it also shows how the medical engineering field can help those suffering from the most common neurological disorder in the UK. Hopefully, the success of projects like this can help promote ground level opensource development. The reason the project is available for opensource development is to allow developers and creators to further projects, ask questions and overall raise engagement of MS and its challenges.
For me, when I got my diagnosis I knew nothing about MS, it sounded scary. By raising awareness and engagement we can create medical aids that work with MS patients, developed with insight and compassion making what can be scary news into slightly less scary news.
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