The Newest Weapon In The Fight Against Ebola? Robots

I think we can all agree that Ebola is a pretty terrifying illness. The death toll of the outbreak in West Africa has already reached almost 4900, and the disease itself has a 70% mortality rate. It's highly contagious, as well; dangerous to treat even with proper preparations. Worse still, a licensed treatment or vaccine does not yet exist.

Understandably, people are nervous.

Perhaps that's why a group of robotics scientists hailing from across the United States have formed a coalition of sorts. Having human beings travel to quarantine zones, they argue, needlessly puts them in danger. Why not send robots instead? 

Machines could easily perform all the tasks currently handled by human first-responders, including waste removal, disinfection, the distribution of vaccines, and even the burial of bodies. It's all tentative, of course. robotics technology is still fairly limited, lacking the dexterity and judgement necessary for Health Care. On top of that, there's the matter of burial - a sensitive subject in any culture. 

"One of the first things I heard from medical responders is that one of the bottlenecks is in handling bodies," Texas A&M Robotics specialist Robin Murphy explained to the New York Times.  "Families might be unable to accept that a loved one's body could be handled by a machine. It's something we can do, but it has to be culturally sensitive."

"As was the case in Fukishima, the Ebola crisis in Africa has revealed a significant gap between robot capabilities and what is needed in the realm of disaster relief and humanitarian assistance," added Gill A. Pratt, a roboticist and program manager at DARPA. "We have a moral obligation to try and select, adapt, and apply available technology where it can help, but we also must appreciate the difficulty of the problem."

Because of said difficulty, it's not likely that the researchers will have completed any of their solutions before the Ebola epidemic is brought to an end  - which will take approximately four months, if everything's done properly. For the time being, Murphy said, the most they can do is jury-rig a few prototypes out of already-existing models.

In order to discuss how they will proceed, scientists are planning a series of teleconferenced brainstorming sessions, the first of which is slated to be held on November 7. Participating institutions include Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Texas A&M, The University of California, Berkeley, and DARPA.