How robots could be used to fight Ebola

As more people die from the virus, robotics experts are looking for ways to enlist robots in the fight to contain Ebola in the coming months and years.

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There's potential for robots to help out with the Ebola crisis, but we shouldn't expect miracles. CNET

When most people hear the word Ebola, they envision hazmat suits and quarantined hospital rooms. But UC Berkeley engineering professor Ken Goldberg envisions robots helping with specific tasks to keep humans out of harms way. His expertise in robotics is why the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy encouraged him and researchers in three other universities and research centers to hold brainstorming sessions on ways to enlist robots in the fight against the contagious and deadly disease.

Goldberg wanted to be clear from the get-go that using robots in this health crisis will not be a magic bullet.

"People have an expectation that the robots are going to go in and do something dramatic." Goldberg explained. "The capabilities are limited right now. There's a lot of research that needs to be done. We just want to set expectations. This is not going to save the day. These are some tools that we hope will be useful in both the near term and long term."

Goldberg sees at least two ways robots may be redeployed in the next three to six months to help contain the spread of Ebola.

First, telepresence robots, with cameras and screens that allow doctors to remotely communicate and get a visual read of patients, could be useful in the diagnosis phase.

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InTouch Health of Santa Barbara, Calif., makes telepresence robots that are already deployed in several hospitals and used to diagnose patients, though not for Ebola.

"When you're trying to diagnose a patient, there's a lot of nuance," Goldberg said. "You want to be able to look from different angles, look at different parts of the patient. You also want to be able to have some kind of intervention. You want to be able to zoom in or hopefully touch, palpate part of a patient. So, there's a lot of interesting research. How can you do that from a distance?"

Goldberg also sees robots being helpful in the near term with clean up and decontamination. But there's one major obstacle to overcome: most robots have wheels that would immediately get contaminated.

Goldberg explained, "We don't know, actually, how to sterilize them. There's too many intricate, moving parts. So essentially, you'd have to throw the robot out afterward."

Several years down the road, Goldberg expects, robots will be performing routine experiments in bio labs as researchers try to learn more about the Ebola virus. But first, engineers need to improve robots' abilities to perceive clear objects. All the glassware used in labs, like test tubes, beakers and slides, can currently confuse robots.

The second way Goldberg says robots can play a part in the Ebola fight in the long term is by inserting IVs either for drawing blood or providing intravenous hydration. Technology could help cut down on the occurrences of patients being poked multiple times to tap a good vein.

"We use new imaging techniques to be able to find the vein more accurately," Goldberg said, "and a robotic device that would be able to position the needle more accurately."

Since it could be a couple of years before robots play an expanded role in the fight against Ebola, Goldberg said he's looking beyond this current health crisis so we're ready for the next one.

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