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

Sharon Gaudin | Oct. 20, 2014
Nov. 7 meeting would explore use of robots to transport food, act as interpreters and even bury the dead.

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."


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