With the Ebola virus claiming nearly 5,000 lives, it's understandable why the White House is now considering options outside of traditional means to help curb the outbreak, enlisting robot technology to join in the fight.
Officials gathered together specialists on Nov. 7, holding discussions at University of California, Berkeley, the Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Texas A&M University to talk about how robots can be utilized to aid health workers in West Africa.
The day was intended to inspire research committees in various sectors to assess how they may be able to take advantage of innovation and technology and assist the international effort against Ebola, according to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.
"The idea is to think about what are the technologies that could be used in the near-term to assist the workers and the patients. Also, what are the research needs for the longer term?" explained Ken Goldberg, a UC Berkeley engineering professor.
For instance, robots can be used to help diagnose patients, lessening direct contact between health workers and the sick, which in turn reduces chances of infection. Robots may also be used to decontaminate rooms that Ebola patients were confined in, as well as to insert needles in patients by identifying veins using infrared technology.
Jennifer Pagani, principal mechanical engineer at QinetQ North America, a robot maker, adds that the best kind of personal protective equipment is one that doesn't require any human intervention. She said their robots can be used for disposing contaminated medical waste, also a way of cutting back on the chance for infection.
While the gathering seriously discussed what robots can contribute to the fight against Ebola, this does not mean that robots have not joined in the effort yet. Tennessee-based Lumalier Corp., for example, already has two sanitation robots deployed in Liberia that are tasked with automatically decontaminating hospital rooms with ultraviolet light to destroy viruses. Disinfecting technology is already in use in U.S. hospitals so there's no denying it works.
While robots can indeed take the place of humans in many ways to ultimately prevent infection, using them in the field also has challenges. For one, only robots that can be sterilized with gases and heat can be used. Most robots are typically built using delicate components and this can hamper their use in affected countries in West Africa.
If this roadblock can be addressed, it's possible for commercially viable robots to be available within the next six months.