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.

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.

"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.

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.

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."

Another of Padir's ideas is to set up a telepresence robot that could be used to move around a field clinic, allowing health care workers to see and interact with patients from the safety of a remote location. It would not replace direct human contact, but it could add another level of interaction with the patients.

Padir said the telepresence technology could help reduce some of the isolation that patients have reported feeling when in quarantine.

"People are afraid to show up to hospitals because they'll be put in quarantine, and you're left alone and you're away from loved ones," Padir said. "Anything we can do to improve the situation in quarantine, we are open to exploring. Companionship through telepresence could be a tool to maintain quarantine conditions."

Murphy, author of Disaster Robotics, has been working on search and rescue robots since 1995. She said she's not set on any one particular idea, but is interested in exploring how to design a robot that could help bury Ebola victims who have died.

One of the reasons that aid workers are at such high risk in outbreak areas is that people infected with Ebola are the most contagious at the time of death and for a few days after. Using a robot to help move and bury the bodies would help protect workers and prevent further spread of the disease.

However, building a robot that could safely and reliably do the job, while being respectful of the remains and the victims' families, is a challenger.

"My fear was there are a lot of construction robots, like the little bots that scooped up debris and covered things with dirt in Fukushima," she said. "But that would be horrible -- disrespectful. That was a person. We're not just going to bulldoze them into a grave. And there are cultural sensitivities. There are local burial customs and people need to say good-bye to their loved ones."

Murphy doesn't know whether mortuary robots will be called for during the Nov. 7 workshop but she is using the idea as a teachable moment for students at Texas A&M and getting ahead on the project in case they are needed.

Students in the school's department of architecture design are trying to modify a four-wheeled Bobcat robot by replacing a bulldozer scoop with a sarcophagus that would carry the body in a respectful manner.

"Robots scooping up people is pretty difficult to do in a dignified way and to do it reliably," Murphy said. "But handling infected bodies is really bad... It's an interesting concept but it's not just about getting the technology right. We have to get a lot of things right."

That means the roboticists need to focus on a lot of details.

Other questions the robotocists need to answer are what training will the locals need to operate the robots? How will the batteries be recharged? What's the Internet connectivity like where the robots will be operating? How would they transport the robot or robots? Is the ground there hard, sandy or muddy? Do the locals even want robotic help?

"All of these questions have to be answered," Murphy said. "That's the difference between having a great idea in a laboratory and having it work out in the field."

Texas A&M has applied for funding through the National Science Foundation for a rapid response grant to study what technology is needed and what the requirements for it would be.

Padir said he is looking forward to the workshop so that researchers and aid workers can brought together to make sure the technology fits the need.

"We can imagine solutions in our laboratory from an engineering perspective but we need to make sure it's usable on the field," he said. "We need to come together as a community and say this is what we can pursue and make an impact."

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