PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Researchers at Oregon State University are introducing new companions into a local veterans home, but they aren’t what you might expect.

Naomi Fitter, assistant professor of robotics at the OSU College of Engineering, is heading an $800,000 study to see if robots can help improve the health and wellness of residents by helping to keep them physically and mentally active.

According to Fitter, the study would involve studying physical therapy as well as other physical and cognitive exercise routines being led by a human-sized robot.

“The home already has virtual reality setups as part of its physical therapy facilities,” Fitter said. “We want to see if a physically present robot agent, there in the same space, can be an improvement. Residents can do their exercise routines with a ‘buddy,’ possibly with more engagement, especially between physical therapists’ visits when human support for exercise practice is not typically available.”

Researchers believe that having the robot in common spaces could encourage group physical activity and also may have social benefits as well.

They also will be looking at if the robots could have other uses, such as alleviating nurse burnout by using the robots to respond when residents use their call button.

“We have robots in the lab that might be able to help with that type of thing,” Fitter said. “We can also look at whether telepresence robots can help the residents videoconference with friends and relatives. And there are pettable seal robots that can be used to help with dementia care, to provide comfort at important times of day, like sundown.”

Fitter is joined by Bill Smart, professor of mechanical engineering and robotics, and Carolyn Aldwin, director of the Center for Healthy Aging Research in the College of Public Health and Human Services.

“It seems most likely we’ll explore the breadth of applications to see what from our current arsenal might be most useful, and see what other needs and ideas veterans’ home staff might have that we did not think of in our initial brainstorming,” Fitter said.