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March 30, 2015

Scientists develop Ebola-fighting robots


As the Ebola outbreak in Africa hits its one-year anniversary mark, researchers are exploring ways robots could help health care workers care for people who get sick. More than 10,000 people have died in the outbreak, though the rate of infection has slowed in recent months.

Robots have been part of disaster relief in the past, including after the World Trade Center bombing and Hurricane Katrina. They cannot replace human health care workers, but they can do routine tasks, freeing people to spend more time with patients, according to Robin Murphy, director of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue at Texas A&M University.

“What we continue to hear from the health care workers, they want to be there themselves to help the victims. They’re trying to ease suffering,” she said.

The robots can transport patients who are infected with Ebola, limiting health care workers’ exposure to the virus, according to David Martin, program director at Disaster City, which tests the robots. They’re also able to administer food and medicine to patients.

Another kind of robot, the Xenex decontamination robot, uses U.V. light to disinfect surfaces. It was used in the Dallas hospital that treated a patient with Ebola in September. In the future, Xenex robots might be deployed to hospitals in other countries to decontaminate the Hazmat suits that health workers wear around patients with Ebola.

Warm up questions
  1. What are robots currently used for?
  2. How could robots help during a disaster like an outbreak of disease?
  3. What are some big problems that robots might be able to help with?
Critical thinking questions
  1. How can robots help fight Ebola? What are some of the things that roboticists must keep in mind while designing these robots?
  2. What support is required for Ebola patients, and what do health workers need to provide this support?
  3. What are the challenges of transitioning a robot from the lab to real-life situations in the field?
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