Designing disease-resistant robots for the front lines of the Ebola crisis

Read the Full Transcript


    Next: This week marks the one-year anniversary of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. We have learned a lot in 12 months, including this: how robots might one day help quell medical epidemics.

    The NewsHour's Mary Jo Brooks reports.


    This is an unmanned aerial vehicle?

    ROBIN MURPHY, Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue, Texas A&M University: Yes, it is. This is air robot AR-180 that we have been using for wilderness search and rescue.


    Robin Murphy is sort of the Indiana Jones of disasters. The Texas A&M professor showed us her storage room of robot-filled cases ready to be deployed in a moment's notice.


    This class of robots has actually been used the most in building collapses.


    As head of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue, Murphy has taken her high-tech teammates to the World Trade Center bombing, tsunamis in Japan, Hurricane Katrina, and the mudslide in Washington State one year ago.

    Her mission? To use robots for tasks that are too difficult or too dangerous for human beings. It's only natural, then, that when the Ebola crisis broke out last fall in West Africa, Murphy wanted to see if her disease-resistant machines could help.


    We, as roboticists, spontaneously said, is anything that we can be doing? This is a new set of disasters, a new set of issues for us.


    Murphy says she knows robots will never replace the care that doctors and nurses give, but she believes it is possible to use robots for logistical support, to deliver supplies or transport waste, for example.


    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.

    So if we can let them spend their deep — their time in their suits and the time to decon in that stress to do those types of things and let the robots do things like swap out the I.V.s, take out the trash, do things like that, those are the things that are going to be the big win.


    In this country, hospitals have already begun using robots for routine tasks. The Geisinger Medical Centers use robots to distribute medicine and food to patients.

    But Murphy says putting robots like that in a remote field hospital bring a whole new set of other problems. Can it work in less-than-ideal conditions?


    You can imagine anything with track, if it's a tent floor, might start catching that up and getting it caught. You have got the lip of the tent as it goes in between the doors. A lot of robots would just simply get tangled up in it.


    One of the most promising robots is the MUTT. Designed for potential use by the military, the vehicle can carry stretchers with patients over long distances.

  • CLINT ARNETT, Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service:

    If we move this way, it goes this way. If I move back that way, it goes backwards. Likewise, I can clip it on my belt and just walk off with it, and it will follow me.


    Clint Arnett demonstrated how it works at Disaster City, a training facility run by Texas A&M that looks like a Disneyland of disasters.

    On the day we visited, first-responders were practicing on a derailed rain, a simulated propane leak, and a fire at a mock oil refinery. General Dynamics, the manufacturer of the MUTT, is using Disaster City to test the robot in a variety of real-world conditions.

    David Martin is the facility's program director.

  • DAVID MARTIN, Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service:

    It can be utilized for transport of patients that are infected with Ebola. That would help, in that it would limit the exposure of people who would be coming in contact with the patient and would make it much easier for them to move patients around without having to suit up a number of people to transport that patient.


    Another potential weapon is the Xenex decontamination robot.


    And then it will start going up, so you're going to expose all of the high-touch surfaces.


    Already used in 300 hospitals, the robots use U.V. light to disinfect hospital rooms.

    Morris Miller, CEO of Xenex.


    You turn it on, you set it to run. All of a sudden, the top starts lifting up. That bulb starts pulsing as soon as it's visible. And it will go all the way up to 52 inches and then it comes back down. So it's exposing all of the surfaces in a hospital room, in an operating room to this intense xenon lamp.

    It will literally kill any virus or spore that we have ever seen.


    Simple to use, the robots are usually operated by hospital cleaning crews in two five-minute sessions. One machine, which costs $100,000, can typically decontaminate up to 50 rooms a day.

    The Xenex robots had real-world testing with Ebola last fall. The machines were in use at the Dallas hospital where Eric Duncan was unsuccessfully treated for Ebola. The robots have also been used for two years at the University Health System in San Antonio.

    And Dr. Jason Bowling says the robots are part of an Ebola response plan that they have developed.

  • DR. JASON BOWLING, University Health System:

    With a patient with Ebola virus disease, at all times, we were aware of where that patient was located to minimize their movement and then to keep the surrounding areas clean and decontaminated.

    So, one of the things we wanted to do was use the Xenex machine to decontaminate those surrounding areas. Also, if the patient did need to be transported, for example, when they arrived, we were going to decontaminate areas through which the patient had passed, including the elevator.


    Earlier this month, a study published in "The American Journal of Infection Control" recommended that Xenex robots be used to disinfect the protective suits that health workers wear when treating Ebola patients.

    Robin Murphy says it's still likely to be six to eight months before robots of any kind are deployed to Africa. She concedes that with the number of Ebola cases dwindling, the need seems less urgent now, but she says all of the robotic work that's occurred in the last few months means they will be ready when the next infectious disease outbreak occurs.

    In College Station, Texas, I'm Mary Jo Brooks for the PBS NewsHour.

Listen to this Segment