How robots could help health workers manage this Ebola outbreak

Vecna's BEAR robot lifts a dummy. A robot like BEAR could help move patients, according to WPI's Michael Gennert.
Vecna's BEAR robot lifts a dummy. A robot like BEAR could help move patients, according to WPI's Michael Gennert.

Could robots assist health workers manage the ongoing Ebola outbreak? Researchers in Massachusetts and around the world are going to discuss how the machines could help during this crisis and in future health emergencies at a White House Office of Science and Technology workshop next month.

Leading the effort are researchers at UC Berkeley, Texas A&M and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. They will meet on Nov. 7 to discuss the ongoing crisis but also future needs. “Can we be prepared for the next one so we’re not caught by surprise?” Michael Gennert, director of WPI’s robotics program said. Part of that meeting will take place at WPI’s Worcester campus.

Some tasks done by health workers — decontaminating rooms and moving supplies — could be taken over by delivery robots, decreasing contact between healthy people and those affected by the virus. Also, telepresence robots make people  affected by the disease feel less alone, connecting quarantined people or infected patients with those they love.

Because the infrastructure available is different in every country, the level of robot intervention would differ based on where they are used. “What you do at Emory or Mass. General is different from what we can do in Monrovia,” Gennert said.

Among the workshop’s leaders is the godmother of all emergency robots: Robin Murphy professor of computer science at Texas A&M. Murphy was among the first people to use emergency robots when she sent some into the rubble in New York City, after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. She has since been involved with scores of natural disasters including Hurricane Katrina and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

When the Fukushima Daiichi power plant turned hostile for human workers after the Tohuku earthquake and tsunami, robots were sent in to do some of the jobs.

Inspired by this need, DARPA launched its Robotics Challenge to speed up development of more sophisticated robots that could be useful in these situations. With humans at the center of this Ebola crisis, part of the focus will be on how robots could safely interact with people, while being least intrusive in a sensitive situation.

According to WPI’s Gennert, the technology itself isn’t out of reach. There are robots today that could take on some roles. For example, Vecna, a Cambridge medical technology company, has developed a robot called BEAR built for carrying soldiers away from the battlefield. A Texas company called Xenex has built a robot called Little Moe which uses UV light to kill bacteria and viruses in hospital rooms. The Dallas hospital that treated Thomas Duncan is among its customers.

Among the more dangerous activities for health workers is decontaminating and burying the bodies of people who have died of the disease. Local communities have seen foreign health workers take over an activity that is steeped in tradition. Introducing a robot to perform this task could be even more disruptive.

Key to deploying these robots will be strong collaborations with locals in the affected areas, says Kate Darling, who studies the ethics of new technologies as a researcher at the MIT Media Lab.

“Being sensitive to the people at the center of the emergency will require something that the team already seems well aware of: keeping humans in the loop,” she said. According to Darling, the new technology is most likely to be accepted if robots are used “as a supplement to human care, rather than a replacement.”

Image via Vecna Technologies

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about science and research. Email her at nidhi.subbaraman@globe.com.
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