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January 9, 2015

WPI researchers get NSF grants to aid in Ebola fight

Two teams of researchers at Worcester Polytechnic Institute recently received Rapid Response Research awards from the National Science Foundation to develop technologies to help protect workers caring for patients with Ebola and other infectious diseases.

The first award of $200,000 will fund the development of a new type of "smart" mobile treatment tent, while the second award of $75,000 will aid those working directly with patients, WPI said in a statement Thursday.

Called a medical Cyber-Physical System (CPS), the treatment tent 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.

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 include robots, pressure-sensitive mats, infrared cameras, and barcodes and other tracking methods for equipment and consumables.

“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.

The second RAPID grant was awarded to Dmitry Berenson, assistant professor of computer science, and Padir. It addresses the particularly problematic nature of personal protection equipment (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. The award will explore the use of Baxter robots to reduce risk.

“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.”

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.

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