Robotics scientists nationwide are pondering an intriguing possibility: Might robotic technologies deployed in rescue and disaster situations be quickly repurposed to help contain the Ebola epidemic?
A robot that could perform even some of the tasks of a human, such as waste removal or the burial of bodies, would have significant lifesaving potential. So, with the assistance of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, scientists are planning a series of brainstorming meetings. The first round will be held Nov. 7 at four locations: Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in Massachusetts; Texas A&M; the University of California, Berkeley; and in Washington.
The problem, scientists say, is that the technology is still limited when it comes to medicine. While mobile robots now can disarm roadside bombs and drive cars, they are taking only the first tentative steps toward the human levels of dexterity required in health care.
“You see the situation that the medical teams are facing, and I don’t even know if a robot is a solution,” said Taskin Padir, an assistant professor of robotics engineering at Worcester Polytechnic and an organizer of one of the meetings.
Still, he has been considering ways to repurpose an existing robot project as a tool for more safely performing decontamination tasks, like spraying bleach solution on clothing exposed to infected body fluids.
“As was the case in Fukushima, the Ebola crisis in Africa has revealed a significant gap between robot capabilities and what is needed in the realm of disaster relief and humanitarian assistance,” said Gill A. Pratt, a roboticist who is a program manager at the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. “We have a moral obligation to try and select, adapt and apply available technology where it can help, but we must also appreciate the difficulty of the problem.”