Robots help children in hospital take part in school and other activities

New devices could help prevent children from becoming lonely when isolated from other people

New devices could help prevent children from becoming lonely when isolated from other people

Pupils with an AV1 robot. Picture: No Isolation

On a table in the middle of a classroom sits a robot with lights flashing in its head. From its abdomen comes what sounds uncannily like the voice of a teenager.

‘Please Miss, could you repeat the question?’ says the voice.

The voice is indeed that of a teenager, a sick teenager in hospital, and they can operate the robot through a tablet computer. When they want to ask a question they can make the robot light up to signal to the teacher.

Each child is given a unique PIN number so only they can operate the robot. Information is exchanged during real-time and not recorded, it is also encrypted to protect the child.

The robot, known as AV1, is the product of Norwegian company No Isolation. It will be coming to classrooms in England through a pilot project at: Berkshire Adolescent Unit; Bristol Hospital School; the Cherry Tree Learning Centre, Dudley; Gloucestershire Hospital Education Service; Great Ormond Street Hospital School, London; Hospital and Outreach Education, Northamptonshire; Leicester Hospital School; the Pilgrim Hospital School, Cambridge; Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital; and Shepwell Short Stay School in the Midlands.

Each of the ten pilot areas has ten AV1 robots to use with sick children.

Innovation fund

This intervention is timely. A December 2018 Office for National Statistics report, Children’s and Young People’s Experiences of Loneliness, reports that young people in the UK with long-term illnesses or disabilities are more likely (63.1%) to occasionally feel lonely than those who do not (46.6%).


of young people with long-term illness or disability in the UK reported feeling lonely

Source: Office for National Statistics 2018

The Department for Education (DfE) has announced a reform of alternative school provision, including hospital education, in March. This led to the DfE document Creating Opportunity for All, which set up a £4 million alternative provision innovation fund to run until 2020.

The hospital school project itself is backed with nearly £545,000 of government funding.

Cath Kitchen, project lead for the Alternative Provision Innovation Fund research into the use of AV1 telepresence solutions for pupils with medical needs, says: ‘The robot has expressive eyes. In the middle of its forehead there is a small camera. In the belly there is a loud speaker.

‘The audio streams both ways so the child’s voice comes out of the robot. Children can hear the teacher and their friends talking.

Returning to school

‘You can adjust the volume, so by turning it down at break time the teenagers can chat with their friends. We could say to parents their children can’t go out because they are neutropenic – they have a low level of white blood cells – so take it round to grandma’s, or a sleepover or a birthday party – all those social interactions that they miss out on. The potential is hugely exciting.’


AV1 robots have been provided to each pilot area

Source: No Isolation 2018

She adds: ‘Our experience shows that children who remain connected to their home school, who keep in touch with their friends and peers, find it much easier to return to school after periods of absence.’

The hope is that preserving the connection with the children’s home schools will make it easier for children to slot back into education once they have recovered.

‘One of the big criticisms of alternative provision is the children don’t always transition back to school,’ says Ms Kitchen.

‘While we care about attainment, what is much more important for our students is their emotional and social well-being. If it isn’t bad enough to have a complex medical or mental health condition, if you then lose contact with all your friends and your home school has forgotten you, it’s like a triple whammy.’


Another type of mobile robot is helping pupils in Oxfordshire make the difficult transition back to school after months away having cancer treatment.

Student Adam Bennett uses a Double 2
Telepresence robot to communicate
with a friend. Picture: Wood Green School

It is early days for the project, but the signs are encouraging as the first two students to be given the robots last year have recently returned to school.

The first student to use one of the robots is Adam Bennett who used the device at home and hospital while receiving treatment for Ewing’s sarcoma.

Controlling the robot through a tablet computer he could not only attend lessons and after-school activities, but also walk the robot along the corridor between lessons while talking to school friends.

His robot was purchased by Oxfordshire Hospital School (OHS) in Oxford.

OHS initially bought two mobile robots called Double 2 Telepresence, produced by UK company RoboSavvy, to keep pupils connected to their local school. 

Connecting pupils

Unlike the AV1, the Double 2 enables the pupil to be seen by classmates and teachers. OHS assistant head James Shryane, says they are the first school in the country to be using this type of robot to connect pupils.


Cost of an individual Double 2 Telepresence robot

Source: Oxfordshire Hospital School 2018

Double 2 can move around thanks to its drum wheelcase. A tablet computer sits on top of an adjustable pole that has wheels at the bottom – it looks like a music stand on wheels.

Mr Shryane says: ‘It’s quite agile, it’s amazing seeing young people driving it and they quickly get the hang of it.’

The robots, which cost £4,000 each, are being used exclusively with cancer patients, who are known to take more time off school than other pupils.

‘We know with our work that the longer children are off the harder it is to get back, so it is trying to make that transition,’ says Mr Shryane. ‘The robot makes a huge difference.

About the author

Anne Horner is a freelance writer

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