Campus researchers brainstorm robotic solutions for Ebola

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UC Berkeley's "Da Vinci" surgical robot cuts a circular pattern from a sheet of gauze. Medical robots are far from being deployed against Ebola, but researchers are working on new ideas to help treat future epidemics.

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Researchers at UC Berkeley participated in a meeting Friday to discuss the potential of robotics in the fight against Ebola and future epidemics.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, UC Berkeley, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Texas A&M University coordinated a discussion regarding the use of technology in the outbreak. Campus engineering professor Ken Goldberg organized the discussion at UC Berkeley.

Sachin Patil, a postdoctoral researcher in Goldberg’s lab, described the meeting as a “brainstorming session” with ideas coming “out of all four sides of what could be useful,” referring to the four locations in which the meetings were held.

The Ebola epidemic has been deadly to health care workers. According to World Health Organization statistics through the end of October, more than 500 workers have contracted the disease, and 269 of them have died. Ebola is transmitted through direct contact with an infected patient or their bodily fluids, and — though health care workers wear personal protective equipment — the gear must be removed according to strict guidelines.

“The major problem in the past has been for people removing the contaminated suits,” said Arthur Reingold, professor and head of epidemiology at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. “They do it improperly and inadvertently come into contact with the suit.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend donning a face shield, respirator, full-body covering and two pairs of gloves for Ebola treatment. But while the gear protects health care workers, heat and humidity in the areas most affected by Ebola limit the time they can spend with patients.

There is therefore a push to minimize human interaction with affected areas and patients.

“Could you use robots to clean up inside these treatment sites?” Patil said. “Can a robot help change IV bags?”

Patil and Goldberg emphasized that, at the moment, robotics technology is far from replacing health care workers on the front lines. Patil, however, said Friday’s session inspired people to think about solutions for the many problems that epidemic treatment presents. One of the issues discussed was the frequent changing of IV bags for patients. Their shape and color render them difficult for robots to grasp, but, Patil said, “maybe we can rethink how IV bags are made.”

He mentioned the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s response to the Fukushima disaster as a similar catalyst to advances in robotics. The federal agency challenged engineers around the world to improve disaster-response robots after the nuclear accident, and more than 100 teams participated. But Patil emphasized that any technological progress prompted by the Ebola epidemic would be for future use.

“This is something that we want to make very clear to everyone — that this is something that is not ready at the moment at all,” Patil said. “It’s not like robots will come in and save the day, like the movies.”

Contact Philip Cerles at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @PhilipCerles_DC.