Researchers to meet with aid workers to build Ebola-fighting robots

Robotics researchers from around the country are working together to come up with technology that could help fight the deadly Ebola outbreak.

Scientists are considering telepresence robots that could act as rolling interpreters, autonomous vehicles that could deliver food and medicine, and robots that could decontaminate equipment and help bury the victims of Ebola.

ebola aidworkers decontaminateJosephus Olu-Mammah/Reuters
Health workers spray themselves with chlorine disinfectants after removing the body of a woman who died this week from the Ebola virus in Freetown, Sierra Leone.

“What are the things robotics can do to help?” asked Robin Murphy, a professor of computer science and engineering at Texas A&M University and director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue. Robotocists need to learn from the medical and humanitarian communities how the robotic machines can be used to help in this crisis, she said.

To bring together health care workers, relief workers and roboticists, Murphy, is helping to set up a multi-location workshop on Nov. 7. At this point, the meetings, Safety Robotics for Ebola Workers, are set to be co-hosted by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Texas A&M, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the University of California, Berkeley.

The workshops, which are expected to be simulcast, will include medical responders and academic researchers, as well as commercial robotics companies.

robin murphy robotics texasam
Robin Murphy, professor of robotics at Texas A&M University.

Murphy told Computerworld she wants the robotics people to hear directly from those who have been working on the outbreak to learn what’s needed to help patients, to stem the spread of the virus and to protect aid workers from infection.

“The workshop is for us to shut up and listen to them and take what we hear them say and use it,” Murphy said. “They’ll talk about what they need and then we can talk about what we can offer… What can we do in the next few months and then what do we need to do in the longer term? What should we have five years from now?”

The Ebola outbreak is the largest in history, striking several countries in West Africa, infecting more than 9,000 people and killing more than 4,400, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Liberia, alone, has had more than 4,200 cases of infection and 2,400 deaths.

As of Friday afternoon, there have been three confirmed cases in the U.S. and one death.

Taskin Padir, an assistant professor of robotics engineering and electrical and computer engineering at WPI, has been working with Murphy to set up the workshops.

He stressed that use of technology should not be seen a replacement for human care workers.

“We are trying to identify the technologies that can help human workers minimize their contact with Ebola,” Padir said. “Whatever technology we deploy, there will be a human in the loop. We are not trying to replace human caregivers. We are trying to minimize contact.”

Padir also has been developing ideas for what technology he and his colleagues could ready for the cause.

prof. taskin padir wpiWPI
Taskin Padir, assistant professor of robotics engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

One idea is to use a wheeled robot with two attached sprayers to decontaminate equipment or areas where the disease has been found. Padir said he already has set up a prototype of a decontamination robot, using a machine with an arm from tWPI’s robotics team and adding two sprayers to it.

“We are not trying to come up with a brand new design because I don’t think we have time for that,” Padir said. “I’m trying to repurpose some of the standard designs we have. We want to be able to deploy something within three months. I can’t design brand new robots that would take a year to figure out.”

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