Innovative technologies serving rehabilitation: the BUDD-e robot and the GYM project

BUDD-e, the guide robot from the POLITECNICO DI MILANO for people with visual disabilities, and the GYM project, which enables movement in individuals with sarcopenia, developed by IRCCS Galeazzi–Sant’Ambrogio Hospital, part of the San Donato Group, are examples of technological innovations in the field of rehabilitation.

Innovation and technology are the key words for those working in the healthcare field, especially in the area of rehabilitation. Having access to innovative devices and approaches is essential for patients, not only in strictly healthcare terms but also for an improved quality of life. With this goal in mind, the POLITECNICO DI MILANO and the IRCCS Galeazzi-Sant’Ambrogio Hospital, both closely linked to the MIND-Milan Innovation District, have developed BUDD-e, a guide robot for people with visual disabilities, and the GYM project, enabling movement in individuals with sarcopenia, respectively.

MIND is among the pilot areas selected by T-Factor, a European-funded research project that examines the topic of temporary uses in large regeneration projects. European Commission. As part of the temporary initiatives to activate the area, and in order to extend outward the knowledge of what is already happening in MIND, T-Factor, partnering with Edra and ITTBiomed, asked partners and companies in MIND to narrate their scientific discoveries, studies and innovative actions, spreading science and knowledge.

BUDD-e, the guide robot for the blind and visually impaired

According to the Italian Ministry of Health, it is estimated that there are nearly 1.5 million visually impaired people and 220,000 blind individuals in Italy. In general vision loss, in more developed countries, is also associated with aging and the incidence of degenerative diseases in advanced age. Severe visual limitations affect 5.0% of individuals over 65 years, rising to 8.0% in people over 75.

BUDD-e, an acronym for Blind-assistive aUtonomous Droid Device, is an innovative assistive robot that accompanies blind and visually impaired individuals in open environments such as hospitals or sports centers. It was designed by a multidisciplinary team lead by the scientific coordinator Prof. Marcello Farina and the project manager Prof. Emanuele Lettieri, and funded by the POLITECNICO DI MILANO through the support of Polisocial Award 2021 programme, the university’s social engagement and responsibility program. The project is now entering phase two, where it will be used in public spaces in small and medium-sized cities.

What is BUDD-e and how the robot works

BUDD-e consists of the autonomous mobile robot Yape, equipped with the so-called smart tether system, a device that connects the robot to the person with a cable, featuring a handle through which the person is connected and guided. LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensors are also present for the detection of obstacles or the presence of people, allowing for collision avoidance. The total mass of the robot is approximately 40 kg, reaching a maximum speed of around 20 km/h, and it can tackle slopes up to 10°. The robot’s design was accompanied by the study of accessible, inclusive, and customer-centered spaces to optimize its impact.

Once the area of interest is mapped, BUDD-e can serve as a guide in open environments without the need for caregivers or guide dogs. Its use is aimed at severely blind or visually impaired individuals, providing an essential resource for autonomous mobility and orientation.

The second phase begins, the future of BUDD-e

In the initial development and experimentation phase, the project was tested at Niguarda Hospital and the Giuriati Sports Center in Milan. Now, BUDD-e is entering its second phase, which involves deployment in small and medium-sized cities. Users will be able to use it in specific areas such as parks and pedestrian zones in the city center. For each public space, an operator needs to “teach” to BUDD-e the map of the location by teleguiding the robot in the environment where it needs to operate.

The use of BUDD-e will be possible through reservation with an app. Users will be able to indicate the destination through the app and BUDD-e will help them to navigate the space, indicating the direction to take through the smart tether system and acoustic signals. This new phase represents a significant step in the evolution of the robot, aiming to provide tangible benefits in everyday contexts.

The GYM project from IRCCS Galeazzi - Sant’Ambrogio Hospital: digital therapy to counter sarcopenia

Sarcopenia is a pathologyassociated with aging, caused by a reduction of muscle strength, muscle quality, and physical performance, leading to a decline in health and quality of life. There is a 30% increase in the risk of falls, 30% in fractures, and an 18% early onset of chronic conditions. Currently, there are no drugs for its treatment. To slow its progression, physical activity is recommended, especially muscle strengthening exercises.

In this scenario, the concept of digital therapy comes into play, based on the use of smartphone applications, software, and wearable devices. Digital therapies can provide individuals with personalized guidance, continuous monitoring, and positive reinforcement to modify their behavior and improve their health, including a training and rehabilitation program.

Based on these premises, the GYM – Grow Your Muscle project was developed, thanks to funding from the Italian Ministry of Health’s Finalized Research. The goal is to enable home-based exercise prescription, through body-weight exercises, targeted at older people with sarcopenia.

The project was developed by the research group led by Dr. Matteo Bonato from the University of Milan and a researcher at IRCCS Galeazzi – Sant’Ambrogio Hospital. For the project, a platform was created, consisting of a smartphone app where individuals find video tutorials for the correct execution of body-weight exercises; and heart rate monitor are used to monitor heart rate during home-based training. A website is also available where sport professionals can remotely monitor the progression of the home-based physical activity program.

People with sarcopenia test the GYM platform

Currently, the platform is undergoing validation through a scientific clinical trial involving collaboration between San Raffaele Hospital, IRCCS Galeazzi Sant’Ambrogio Hospital, and the School of Sport Science of the University of Milan. The study involves the recruitment of approximately 200 elderly people with sarcopenia divided into two groups: an experimental group, performing home-based physical activity through the platform, and a control group that receive a traditional paper-based training program. Participants are evaluated at the beginning of the study, as well as after 12 and 48 weeks, with a clinical examination, muscle function tests, psychological and cognitive questionnaires, and radiological examinations to assess muscle mass. Preliminary data from participants who have completed the first 12 weeks of protocol indicate that training with GYM has increased muscle strength by 5%, muscle mass by 3.5%, and reduced the risk of falls by 15%.

Currently, digital therapy is considered the future for the prevention and treatment of chronic diseases. Therefore, the preliminary results of this study are certainly encouraging to provide a concrete reality for the prevention, management, and treatment of sarcopenia. Above all, it could enable active aging with a significant improvement in the quality of life.