Meet Pepe, the robot that's getting kids in a Kerala Govt School to wash their hands

Developed by Amrita University's Research Centre, Pepe is green in colour, has an animated mouth and eyes that move to give a sense to the kids that they are being watched
Pepe installed at the Kerala school near the washbasins| Pic: AMMACHI Labs
Pepe installed at the Kerala school near the washbasins| Pic: AMMACHI Labs

According to several recent surveys, while almost all households in India — as many as 97 per cent - have washbasins only the ones who are in the higher economic strata and belong to more educated households in urban areas use soap or handwash to wash their hands. The gap between rich and poor households is alarming — only two out of ten economically households use soap compared to nine out of ten rich households. This affects children the worst as they fall sick or become more prone to  diarrhea and respiratory diseases. In order to combat this, Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham's academic and research centre AMMACHI Labs in collaboration with Glasgow University in Scotland have developed a robot called Pepe that engage with students and encourage them to wash their hands properly.

Currently, Pepe has been installed on a pilot basis in a government primary school in Wayanad in north Kerala and it was an instant hit among the kids. Essentially, Pepe is a social robot which is the first-of-its-kind in the world designed to engage with children to promote proper handwashing behaviour.

Children being taught about 'Pepe' the robot

"Handwashing with soap has significant health benefits, and will help reduce the number of child deaths (300,000 globally) from Diarrhoea and related diseases caused by improper hand hygiene. This requires significant efforts in behavior change which can be bolstered by the application of technology like social robotics. Pepe observes and encourages students in rural schools to wash their hands properly before meals and after using the toilet, two crucial times when bacteria transmission occurs," explains Unnikrishnan R, Team Lead, Virtual Reality and Serious Games group, AMMACHI Labs. It was made using cost effective technologies to bring the price to under Rs 7,000.

At the Chitragiri Government Primary School in Kalpetta (Wayanad district) the hand-shaped robot was mounted on a wall near the washroom and teachers have said after its arrival children between the ages of 5 and 12 made it a habit to visit it at least three times during their school hours. 

Pepe is green in colour, has an animated mouth and eyes that move to give a sense to the kids that they are being watched by it. Pepe also spoke to the children in their mother tongue Malayalam. "We designed the robot to be appealing with eyes that move and an animated mouth to make it socially engaging. The moving eyes in particular promote what psychologists call the "Hawthorne effect", when people change their behaviour when they know someone is watching them," adds Unnikrishnan.

'Pepe' the robot says Hi!

The developers from Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham and Glasgow University conducted a pilot study with 100 children at the Chithragiri Lower Primary School, a rural school in the Western Ghats with a significant tribal population. The Hawthorne effect and the social nature of the robot together caused the quality and duration of handwashing with soap to improve by 40 per cent already. And the local language touch made it an instant success, says Unnikrishnan, adding, "In addition to improvement in student hygiene and health, the results from the study also helps the wider robotics research community design social robots for rural education settings."

AMMACHI Labs and Glasgow University are planning to expand access to this technology in the villages across the country adopted by Mata Amritanandamayi Math, under their Embracing the World initiative on holistic rural development. Pepe will be rolled out in phases throughout 2020 and beyond as the developers want to ensure that the technology is robust and easily maintainable.

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