Robots to the rescue in fight against Ebola

Robots can't catch Ebola
Robots can't catch Ebola   

It's no longer just doctors and aid workers fighting to stop the spread of Ebola, but some of the best and brightest scientists in the U.S.

Friday, specialists in robotics are gathering at the White House as well as universities Texas A&M, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and UC Berkeley. Their mission is to discover ways in which robots can help combat the deadly Ebola outbreak.

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Ken Goldberg professor University of California Berkely.
Justin Solomon | CNBC
Ken Goldberg professor University of California Berkely.

In a statement to CNBC, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy says the day is intended to encourage "academic and private sector research communities to assess how they can best leverage technology and innovation to assist in the international Ebola response."

"The idea is to think about what are the technologies that could be used in the near term to assist the workers and the patients," says Ken Goldberg, a professor of engineering at UC Berkeley, who is participating in today's workshop. "Also, what are the research needs for the longer term?"

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Goldberg imagines a number of practical applications of robots that could be commercially viable within the next six months.

For example: Physicians could use robots to help diagnose patients, thereby avoiding direct contact with the sick and endangering themselves. Robots could also decontaminate hospital rooms, he said.

Health workers treating Ebola patients often wear protective equipment, which can limit their mobility. That's a serious potential problem when trying to insert needles into a patient, and robots could provide an answer to that problem as well, he said.

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For instance, Goldberg said a robot could potentially be developed that would insert needles by determining the position of veins in an arm or hand using infrared technology.

There are challenges with using robots in this fight against Ebola, however. Only a robot that can be sterilized with heat and gases could be used, Goldberg says, and that's difficult because robots are often built with delicate, intricate motors.

Still, the use of robots could be used to reduce the spread of a devastating disease. The Ebola outbreak already has killed nearly 5,000 people, according to the World Health Organization.

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