This is historical material “frozen in time”. The website is no longer updated and links to external websites and some internal pages may not work.

Search form

Exploring Opportunities for Robotics to Aid in Disease Outbreaks

Robots are working for us every day, in countless ways. At home, at work, and on the battlefield, robots are increasingly lifting the burdens of tasks that are dull, dirty, or dangerous.

Robots are working for us every day, in countless ways.  At home, at work, and on the battlefield, robots are increasingly lifting the burdens of tasks that are dull, dirty, or dangerous.

But they could do even more, and that’s why President Obama launched the National Robotics Initiative in 2011 to explore and support the development of future robotics applications. Four agencies (the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, NASA, and the United States Department of Agriculture) are involved and issued a joint solicitation for next-generation robotics.

Earlier this month, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy  convened a workshop at the National Science Foundation focused on applications of robotic technology to large-scale disease outbreaks like the current Ebola crisis. Workshop participants discussed the challenges faced by healthcare and aid workers in responding to the current Ebola crisis both domestically and internationally, to brainstorm ways in which robotic technology could yield short-term solutions, and to identify long-term challenges that can be addressed by National Robotics Initiative (NRI) research over the coming years.  Participants ranged across a number of academic, government, industry, and non-government organizations.

The OSTP workshop was one of four held simultaneously in different locations and with different hosts:

  • Washington, DC area (held at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, VA).  Hosted by OSTP
  • College Station, TX.  Hosted by the Texas A&M Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR)
  • Worcester, MA.  Hosted by Worcester Polytechnic Institute
  • Berkeley, CA.  Hosted by University of California, Berkeley

Presentations were given across the four sites by medical and robotics experts via videoconference, and each site then engaged in brainstorming and ideation sessions.

There are ample opportunities to address some current challenges with “low tech” solutions involving better equipment and facilities designs.  Most near-term applications of robotic technology would have to rely on human intelligence and dexterity, such as using telepresence robotics to allow experts in adjacent safe zones to interact with patients and to monitor and guide aid workers operating in areas with high risk of infection. 

The Administration has decided to make robotics a priority because:

  • Robotics can address a broad range of national needs such as advanced manufacturing, logistics, services, transportation,  homeland security, defense, medicine, healthcare, space exploration, environmental monitoring, and agriculture;
  • Robotics technology is reaching a “tipping point” and is poised for explosive growth because of improvements in core technologies such as microprocessors, sensors, and algorithms; and
  • Robotics can play an important role in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education because it encourages hands-on learning and the integration of science, engineering, and creative thinking.

To learn more, visit:

Randy Bryant is Assistant Director for Information Technology Research and Development at OSTP