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Elephant robot to remind children to clean their hands

Hand sanitizer and soap is important in the fight against Covid-19, but children in schools and kindergartens may not be fond of all that extra hygiene. As a part of a larger project, scientists from SDU are now building a child-friendly robotic interface to motivate kids to clean their hands.

By Jane Thoning Callesen, , 6/23/2020

Imagine a friendly elephant robot calling on you as you pass by. Its large ears flicker to lure you closer, and if you hold your hands under the trunk, it will spray a portion of sanitizer or soap into your palm. 

Meanwhile, the elephant robot tells you - via video, and with a soft and calm voice - how to apply the product.

Oskar Palinko, Assistant Professor at the Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller Institute, is leading a new research project, aiming to create such elephant robots for schools, and other interactive robot sanitizers for hospitals.

Urgent grant 

He has received an urgent grant from the Innovation Funds extraordinary call for efforts against Covid-19. His goal is to develop various interactive robots that motivate people to use sanitizer and soap in public.

Europeans are generally more pragmatic. We are not used to serious things being adorable, but I think the elephant robot can work well here in Denmark.

Oskar Palinko, Assistant Professor

Serbian-born Oskar Palinko got the idea for the child friendly elephant design from Japan.

– I lived in Japan for two years, and cuteness is an integral part of their culture. They even have a concept for it, it’s called Kawaii, he explains.

Kawaii translates to ‘cute’, and it is visible everywhere in Japan, for instance in Hello Kitty-themed hospitals and with the country’s many official mascots.

– Europeans are generally more pragmatic. We are not used to serious things being adorable, but I think the elephant robot can work well here in Denmark, says Oskar Palinko, who has a 4-year-old son himself.

Different designs

The interactive robots with different designs will all consist of an automatic liquor- or soap dispenser, some servomotors, a computer unit, a touch screen, a face recognition camera, and voice interaction speakers.

The soap version will be used for small children, for whom alcohol is not a good solution, and it will be placed above a sink.

In all cases, the robot will use the intelligent camera system to detect when someone is approaching, and then the speech system will start talking.

Motivate, but don’t disturb

– But we should find the balance between motivating people and bugging them, explains Oskar Palinko.

– We want the robot to lure people closer, but we don’t want it to feel like a nuisance. 

The robot will use artificial intelligence to register people’s responses. With the elephant, for instance, the robot will register whether the children look the elephant in its eyes or turn away. That will help determine what the robot should say and do.

In use by September 

In addition to the child-friendly elephant robot, the project will develop a hand sanitizing robot with a more serious appearance for Sygehus Sønderjylland in Aabenraa.

It will be placed near the entrance to encourage and motivate patients and visitors to sanitize as they enter. The idea is that a robot that speaks and moves will be more effective than a stationary liquor dispenser.

The researchers will then evaluate the effects of the different designs in different locations.

– Who knows, maybe we’ll see that even adults prefer the elephant, Oskar Palinko says with a smile.

Testing of the different prototypes will begin in schools, kindergartens, and hospitals by September, and the project will be completed by Christmas this year. In addition to Sygehus Sønderjylland, Abena A / S is a partner in the project.

Photo: Lars Just/Ritzau Scanpix


  • The RIMEPHAS project stands for Robotic Interface for Motivating and Educating Proper Hand Sanitization.
  • The goal of the project is to save lives by reducing the spread of infectious diseases such as Covid-19. This will be done by designing, building, and testing various interactive hand cleaning robots.
  • The project will be completed within six months, and the prototypes will be tested in public environments such as hospitals, schools, and kindergartens – specifically at Sygehus Sønderjylland, Aabenraa, Midtfyns Gymnasium, Ringe, and Fynshav Børneunivers.
  • The Innovation Fund supports the project with nearly 1 million DKK.
Meet the researcher

Oskar Palinko is Assistant Professor at SDU Robotics at the Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller Institute. Originally from Serbia, he has previously lived and researched robotics in the USA, Italy, and Japan. Oskar has a passion for technology, and he is particularly interested in developing technological solutions that can benefit humans in their daily lives.


Editing was completed: 23.06.2020