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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.

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."


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