As fears continue to grow over the recent outbreak of Ebola, scientists and researchers in the U.S. are hoping to develop a strategy for combating the virus’ spread through the use of robots and autonomous vehicles. November 7th will see workshops put together by the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue that brings robotocists together with members of the medical and humanitarian aid communities to hopefully find a solution.
The initial idea is that depending on the situation, robots can be used as mobile interpreters, methods of delivery for much-needed supplies such as medicine and food, and even during the most dangerous of tasks like decontamination or burying deceased victims. “What are the things robotics can do to help?” poses Robin Murphy, a robotics professor at Texas A&M University, as well as the director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue.
One idea put forward by a robotics engineer is to take a wheeled robot and attach two decontamination sprayers, and then have it work in places where the virus has been found, or on cleaning equipment. Ebola is known to be most contagious at the time when an infected person dies and the first few day immediately after. This poses an even greater challenge than decontamination, as in order for robots to be tasked with moving and burying bodies, they need to be able to do so in a respectful way. As Murphy says, speaking to Computerworld, bulldozing bodies into a mass grave will just not be acceptable.
This being the largest Ebola outbreak the world has ever seen, with over 9,000 people infected and 4,400 killed in West Africa, as well a three confirmed cases in the U.S., it’s important that reliable solutions come quickly. But one point that is stressed in leading up to the workshops is that robots are not act as full replacements for human aid workers. The goal is to minimize workers’ contact, but for every piece of technology put to use, there should still be a human to interact with.