Cameras, robotic mules could help battle Ebola in West Africa

After meeting with aid workers, researchers work on short and long-term tech ideas

Researchers are working on technology that could be shipped to West Africa to help fight the Ebola outbreak as soon as a few months from now, while also looking ahead to bigger plans to combat any disease outbreak.

"Absolutely. This is something we can do," said 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 said Wednesday.

"There are lots of things we found that can go right now … but this will continue to motivate research in human-robotic interactions and how to understand how you design a new technology, how you test a new technology, how you factor in cultural context, how to factor in the targeted environments and how you train people to use them, she said."

Tech researchers from around the U.S. met with health care and aid workers nearly two weeks ago to discuss what kinds of technology, such as robotics, big data analysis or communications, could help fight the Ebola epidemic. Now plans are in the works to get the technological aid where it's needed.

The Nov. 7 workshop was livestreamed across locations at Worcester Polytechnic University, Texas A&M, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the University of California at Berkeley. During the meetings, aid workers were able to explain to the researchers the obstacles they faced in using certain types of technology.

A robotics researcher might, for instance, be able to send a telepresence robot to an aid station or Ebola clinic. However, questions remained on training workers to use the robot, WI-Fi access and how the robot's batteries would be recharged.

By putting the two groups together, scientists hope to offer technology that is not only needed but suited to the job and the environment.

"This was all about learning and brainstorming and collecting people, and it achieved those goals," said Taskin Padir, an assistant professor of robotics engineering and electrical and computer engineering at WPI. "There is a lot of interest in the robotics community to look at infectious disease control in the future. If you talk to some of the key players from the industry side, they have technology that is deployable, but what is the right technology at the right place?"

One of the easiest technologies that could be sent to aid centers are cameras for still images and video, which can be used to collect data on tracking the disease. The cameras also could be set up outside the clinics to simply give doctors and nurses working inside a view of the lines of people waiting for help.

"People can do that too, but they don't have time," Murphy said. "That might be one thing that can be deployed in the short term, and it will just depend on which individual researchers or companies have access to resources to send some of their technologies over."

There's also some robotic equipment that might be ready to go with minimal or no adaptation. One possibility is the General Dynamics Land Systems MUTT, a robotic wagon that can carry patients, supplies or hazardous waste, could be shipped to aid centers.

However, nothing can be simply shipped to a treatment center in a foreign country. All proposals from U.S. companies to send technology to areas hit by the Ebola outbreak must go through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which administers civilian foreign aid efforts.

USAID has put out a call for proposals, and submissions are due by Dec. 1. Murphy said she's expecting the agency to quickly act on some of the proposals so that some of the technologies can be shipped to West Africa early in the new year.

"We can make suggestions and point out things, but we can't self deploy," she said.

While researchers are looking at short-term answers for Ebola, they're also focused on coming up with bigger, more complex systems that can be ready for outbreaks of other deadly diseases.

WPI's Padir noted that projects that might be ready in two to three years include robots that can transport blood samples to laboratories, change IV bags or distribute supplies from central storage areas to remote facilities.

Working with the National Science Foundation, more meetings are planned between aid workers and technologists.

"In a year or two years, there could be really cool systems, robots in new forms and shapes," said Padir. "I'm highly motivated to keep going on this."

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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