Even though the worse is over but global health policymakers warn the dangers of a reemergence, can robots help health workers stop the spread of the dreaded Ebola virus?
By: Ringo Bones
As of late, epidemiologists recently found out that the Ebola virus strains that affected Liberia and neighboring countries in Africa had somehow mutated. Given that by only stopping the further spread of the dreaded Ebola virus is the only viable way to prevent it from further mutating, would robots in conjunction with health workers help stop the spread of the Ebola virus?
Back in November 2014, three leading U.S. robotics universities and the White House got into a meeting to discuss if they can design a new batch of robots that could lessen the risks of health workers’ exposure to the Ebola virus. One idea presented by Worchester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts is to avoid designing new robots from scratch because it involves a huge investment in time and money that governments around the world in search of ways to control the spread of the dreaded Ebola virus cannot currently afford. Rather, WPI says existing robots should be repurposed on Ebola specific tasks. The other universities involved in the discussion are Texas A&M and the University of California, Berkeley.
One of the robots WPI has begun repurposing into an Ebola virus decontaminating robot is the AERO or Autonomous Exploration Rover. It was originally designed for space exploration but is now being converted to help with decontamination work by adding decontamination sprayer tanks and sprayers to its body. The idea is that a health worker will be situated safely outside an Ebola virus contaminated area and would control most of the hazardous decontamination work remotely. “We’re trying to pull the workers further away from the disease,” says Velin Dimitrov, a robotics engineer and Ph.D. candidate. “Ebola doesn’t (yet?) spread through the air, so if you can tele-operate a robot from just outside, it reduces the risk to workers”. WPI’s team hopes to deploy AERO in conjunction with other Ebola virus decontamination robots like the Baxter automotive assembly robot now repurposed as an Ebola virus decontamination robot and scores of former bomb disposal robots that are formerly used to disarm IEDs in Iraq to help with the decontamination efforts in West Africa.