Could robots aid in the Ebola fight?

The White House will co-host a November workshop exploring the use of robots to help minimize human contact with the fast-spreading virus.

Leslie Katz Former Culture Editor
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Leslie Katz
3 min read

Centers for Disease Control

Could robots be the next line of defense in the fight against Ebola? Roboticists the world over have started pondering that question in earnest, with a number of intriguing possibilities emerging: Mortuary robots to respectfully transport those who've died from the virus and are still highly contagious. Waste-handling bots to dispose of biowaste from Ebola patients. Robots that deliver humanitarian supplies to widely infected areas.

Early next month, robotics experts and medical and relief workers will convene at a workshop on safety robotics for Ebola workers to more formally explore ideas. The Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University will co-host the November 7 event, along with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and UC Berkeley. Texas A&M already had a medical response workshop planned that day to address disasters in general, but with concerns over the spread of Ebola heightening daily, it's expanding the meeting into a virtual event.

The idea, says Crasar Director Robin Murphy, is to give robotics experts the chance to hear directly from medical and humanitarian workers what's needed most on the front lines of the Ebola fight.

"The workshop is for us to shut up and listen to them," Murphy told Computerworld. "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?"

Possibilities already discussed include robots that help with burial and waste-disposal duties, she said. Other ideas include robots that detect contamination in hospital rooms, ambulances or houses, and telepresence robots that help experts supervise worker decontamination and serve as "rolling interpreters" for remote health care workers.

"In order to be successful at any one of the tasks, robots have to meet a lot of hidden requirements and sometimes the least exciting or glamorous job can be of the most help to the workers," Murphy wrote in a Crasar blog post on the workshop. Murphy is drawing from her work on robotics for meteorological and geological disasters to address requirements like: "Can an isolated field hospital handle a heavy robot in the muddy rainy season? How will the robots be transported there? Is it easy enough for the locals to use so that they can be engaged and earn a living wage? What kind of network communication is available? What if it needs repairs?"

The 2014 Ebola epidemic is the largest in history according to the Centers for Disease Control, affecting multiple West African countries, with several cases reported in the US. With time of the essence, existing robots would likely be modified for Ebola duties, rather than robots being built from the ground up, said Taskin Padir, assistant professor of robotics engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

Robots have increasingly been dispatched to aid in disasters, with snake robots and rolling camera bots searching for earthquake survivors, for instance, and working to contain leaks at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant -- a mission that posed significant challenges.