Scientists set robots against Ebola

Xenex's germ-zapping robot Credit: Xenex

Xenex’s germ-zapping robot
Credit: Xenex

With the official Ebola death toll approaching 5,000, scientists are increasingly concerned with exploiting all possible ways of fighting this deadly disease. While the biggest labs around the world are working on a vaccine that will hopefully exterminate Ebola once and for all, roboticists are developing more unconventional ways of preventing the spread of the disease.

Recently, a lot of media attention has been focused on Xenex, a San Antonio-based company, which has developed a robotic assistant that helps medical professionals remove traces of infectious diseases, such as ebola, left in hospital premises. Even better, the robot can fence infections out 24/7 with 99,9 % efficiency, thus preventing any potential delays in the operation of a hospital.

The robot does that by firing powerful ultraviolet pulses that wipe out all nasty viruses and bacterias sneaking in the corners of hospital rooms. And while the technology of scrambling viral DNA with ultraviolet light is not particularly new, the idea of a roboticized Ebola killer is certainly to everybody’s liking.

But here is the catch: it does not take a genius to realize that Xenex’s machine has no more right to be called a robot than any other piece of medical equipment. What Xenox has developed is not an autonomous Roomba-like Ebola hunter. Essentially, it is a wheeled cart with a programmable ultraviolet lamp, and, although there is no doubt about its effectiveness in killing Ebola and other germs, we should choose words properly.

Does this mean, however, that robotics has nothing to offer in the biggest recorded outbreak of the virus?  Fortunatelly, the answer is no. Even existing medical robots have a huge potential for fighting diseases like Ebola, but deciding how to effectively use them in harsh conditions, such as those in West Africa, is a complicated issue.

In an attempt to clarify how robots can contribute to the ongoing battle, the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR) at Texas A&M University is organizing a policy workshop on Safety Robotics for Ebola Workers. The workshop will help identify what robots can do in order to minimize human contact with the virus, detect the virus and provide expert consulting to those who contracted the virus. You can learn more about the upcoming workshop HERE.

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