Two teams of researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) recently received Rapid Response Research awards from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop new technologies to help protect workers caring for patients with Ebola and other infectious diseases.
The awards were the outcome of an October 2014 solicitation from the NSF, made in response to the current Ebola outbreak, for proposals for research that could be conducted immediately to better understand how to model and understand the spread of Ebola and encourage the development of products, processes, and learning to address this global challenge.
The first $200,000 award will fund the development of a new type of "smart" mobile treatment tent.
Called a medical Cyber-Physical System (CPS), it will incorporate a host of smart technologies to improve the delivery of care—and decrease the risk of contamination—for patients and clinicians. The WPI researchers will collaborate with medical professionals on the design of the new facility.
As part of the project, the WPI team will outfit an actual mobile treatment tent with adapted versions of a number of emerging technologies. These may be included:
• Tele operated robots (to deliver food, water, and medicine to patients and decontaminate surfaces)
• Pressure-sensitive mats (to detect the location of patients and workers)
• Bluetooth low-energy localization beacons and microwave and infrared motion sensors (for surveillance and to detect breaches of patient isolation protocols)
• Wireless communication networks panning infrared cameras (to remotely monitor patient temperatures)
• Barcodes and other tracking methods for equipment and consumables
• A telemedicine interface to enable medical staff and family members to interact with patients without contacting them.
"We want to create a realistic environment that can quickly provide us with the data we need to adapt the kinds of technology we are developing at WPI in the fight against infectious disease," said Taskin Padir, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and principal investigator for the project. "We need to take what we know and employ it in different ways to enhance our understanding of the environment to reduce clinicians' exposure to pathogens and minimize the spread of disease."
Among the benefits of a medical CPS is that it will reduce the need for physicians and other workers to wear personal protective equipment (PPE), which will lower operational costs and improve patient care, collaborator Jeffrey Bailey, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at UMass Medical School, noted.
"Patient treatment for Ebola is severely limited by the constraints of PPE," said Bailey. "PPE is unwieldy and, importantly, limits the time a health care worker can work with the patients before overheating. Cyber systems and robotics have a great potential to be able to offload repetitive tasks and provide comprehensive monitoring so that doctors and nurses can focus on human interactions with patients and more complex work that can improve patient care and hopefully save more lives."
Insights like these demonstrate the value of WPI collaborating with medical professionals, which co-principal investigator Sonia Chernova, assistant professor of computer science at WPI, said is critical.
"We—as robotics researchers—are not able to be at the front line of care," noted Chernova. "The care providers can provide us with much information on their needs and the value of our technology to them as they treat these patients."
These collaborations will also help the WPI researchers understand the cultural and social conditions in which patients and caregivers will find themselves, said Jeanine Skorinko, associate professor of psychology, and a co-principal investigator on the project. She will serve as WPI's primary liaison to the clinicians and humanitarians who have worked in the field, specifically those medical professionals who have provided care in West Africa.
"Clinicians and aids workers and, consequently, we as researchers must consider the cultural sensitivities, differences in human experiences, and harsh realities of delivering care in these settings," Skorinko explained.
The second RAPID grant was awarded to Dmitry Berenson, assistant professor of computer science, and Padir, and further confronts the particularly problematic nature of the PPE. The $75,000 award will support the creation of a human-robot system that will assist in the "doffing" (i.e., removal) of PPE. Because the PPE has multiple layers of clothing and involves numerous steps, and because doffing must be repeated often under stressful conditions, the process poses a significant risk of infection for healthcare workers.
Utilizing the Baxter robot, which was originally built to help researchers and students consider industrial applications of robotics, especially in manufacturing, Berenson and Padir seek to minimize the amount of contact between the workers' hands (covered with gloves) and the PPE by developing manipulation strategies that will allow the robot to assist in the doffing process by using its hands as hooks, braces, and clamps, so that the healthcare workers use their hands as little as possible.
"If you watch videos of how healthcare workers take off the protective gear, there's a lot of risk of contamination if you make even the slightest mistake," Berenson said. "So what we want to do with Baxter is help the workers take off the gear."
He added, "It's not going to totally undress someone. That's actually very difficult. But it can aid in the human getting out of the gear by themselves without having to touch their own heads or bodies and possibly contaminate themselves."
The WPI research teams also include PhD candidates Antonio Umali, Vinayak Jagtap, and Velin Dimitrov. There will be opportunities for additional graduate students and undergraduates to participate in the projects through various WPI labs.
"We want these to be educational opportunities that illustrate for our students the potential of this technology for the future delivery of all healthcare, not just Ebola," said co-principal investigator of the medical CPS project Michael Gennert, professor of computer science and director of WPI's Robotics Engineering Program.