A few Fridays ago, we took a little bit of a dig at all of the media coverage of an “ebola-fighting robot” that turned out to be essentially just a UV light on a wheeled cart hooked up to a timer. It’s clever marketing, but not clever robotics. Even one of the fanciest UV disenfecting “robots” have instructions that begin, “after a hospital staff member cleans the room using traditional methods...” This is not what real robots are all about. Real robots use autonomy (or at least teleoperation) to keep humans as far away from dangerous situations as possible.
You’d think that real robots would have a lot to offer when it comes to assisting with the control of a highly infectious disease, just like you’d think that robots would have a lot to offer when it comes to assisting with the control of a highly radioactive nuclear power plant. You’d be right to think that, but the problem that we’re having now with Ebola is the same as the problem that we had with Fukushima: there simply aren’t any robots that are prepared and ready, right now, to tackle an immediate crisis, even though robots would be immensely valuable in this situation.
To attempt to rectify this, the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University is partnering with the White House Office of Science and Technology and other groups to hold a policy workshop on Safety Robotics for Ebola Workers. The goal of the workshop will be to not just figure out what kinds of robots would be valuable to have on-hand for future epidemics, but also to try and identify things that the robots we have now can actually help with. And they’ve already got some good ideas.