UCI to help develop robots to protect healthcare workers, reduce isolation

Researchers at the University of California, Irvine, UC San Diego and UCLA have been awarded a $1.2 million grant to develop advanced robots that will allow healthcare workers to safely conduct remote exams and provide quarantined Californians a safe way to connect outside their homes.

“COVID-19 has changed how we work and interact with each other,” said co-principal investigator Veronica Ahumada-Newhart, a research scientist at UCI’s Institute for Clinical & Translational Science. “We are extending our earlier work to new environments where there is a high risk of infection: patient care and community engagement.”

A healthcare worker can remotely operate UC Iris to safely treat isolated patients (left). People at high risk of infection unable to leave home can use UC Iris to engage with their communities, such as via an art class with friends at a cultural center (right). Image credit: UCSD Healthcare Robotics Lab

As the pandemic continues, millions are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, including people with cancer and suppressed immune systems as well as older adults. Staying safe means isolation, which puts these individuals at increased risk for depression, suicide, dementia and other conditions.

At the same time, many healthcare workers and, by extension, their families are vulnerable to the virus daily.

To address this, the research team will develop easy-to-operate, low-cost robots. Called UC Iris, they will give homebound people opportunities to engage with the outside world and healthcare workers the ability to physically examine patients without risking exposure.

The project has a particular focus on Latino communities, the hardest-hit by COVID-19 in California. Working with LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes and Orange County healthcare centres, UCI will explore how technology could help these residents to safely enjoy social and family events.

“When communities reopen, not everyone will be able to return to in-person activities,” Ahumada-Newhart said. “Through this work, we will create telemanipulation robots that allow people to participate in social gatherings, family events and cultural activities in public spaces.”

The UC-wide team’s robots will have advanced tactile sensing, manipulation capabilities and technology to transmit information through touch. The researchers will also study how best to deploy the automatons to improve telehealth, working with healthcare personnel across the UC system.

The robots “will allow operators to feel truly immersed in a remote location and give them a sense of presence and touch,” Ahumada-Newhart said.

Jacquelynne Eccles, UCI Distinguished Professor of education, is also a member of the team, which is led by UCSD’s Laurel Riek, an associate professor of computer science & engineering.

This project is one of 15 funded by the 2021 UC Multicampus Research Programs and Initiatives competition. The awards support research collaborations in fields important to California’s people, environment and economy.

“The MRPI competition funds discoveries that improve the lives of Californians and draws world-class student, faculty and staff talent to the university,” said UC President Michael V. Drake. “UC programs like this help keep California at the forefront of breakthrough research and technological innovation.”

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