Monday, 20 October 2014

How robots could help health workers manage this Ebola outbreak

Could robots assist health workers manage the ongoing Ebola outbreak? Researchers in Massachusetts and around the world are going to discuss how the machines could help during this crisis and in future health emergencies.

Leading the effort are researchers at UC Berkeley, Texas A&M and Worcester Polytechnic Institute. They will meet on Nov. 7 to discuss the ongoing crisis but also future needs. “Can we be prepared for the next one so we’re not caught by surprise?” Michael Gennert, director of WPI’s robotics program said. Part of that meeting will take place at WPI’s Worcester campus.

Some tasks done by health workers — decontaminating rooms and moving supplies — could be taken over by delivery robots, decreasing contact between healthy people and those affected by the virus. Also, telepresence robots make people affected by the disease feel less alone, connecting quarantined people or infected patients with those they love.

Because the infrastructure available is different in every country, the level of robot intervention would differ based on where they are used. “What you do at Emory or Mass. General is different from what we can do in Monrovia,” Gennert said.

Among the organizers is the godmother of all emergency robots: Robin Murphy professor of computer science at Texas A&M. Murphy was among the first people to use emergency robots when she sent some into the rubble in New York City, after the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. She has since been involved with scores of natural disasters including Hurricane Katrina and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan.

When the Fukushima Daiichi power plant turned hostile for human workers after the Tohuku earthquake and tsunami, robots were sent in to do some of the jobs.

Inspired by this need, DARPA launched its Robotics Challenge to speed up development of more sophisticated robots that could be useful in these situations. With humans at the center of this Ebola crisis, part of the focus will be on how robots could safely interact with people, while being least intrusive in a sensitive situation.

According to WPI’s Gennert, the technology itself isn’t out of reach. There are robots today that could take on some roles. For example, Vecna, a Cambridge medical technology company, has developed a robot called BEAR built for carrying soldiers away from the battlefield. A Texas company called Xenex has built a robot called Little Moe which uses UV light to kill bacteria and viruses in hospital rooms. The Dallas hospital that treated Thomas Duncan is among its customers.

Among the more dangerous activities for health workers is decontaminating and burying the bodies of people who have died of the disease. Local communities have seen foreign health workers take over an activity that is steeped in tradition. Introducing a robot to perform this task could be even more disruptive.

Key to deploying these robots will be strong collaborations with locals in the affected areas, says Kate Darling, who studies the ethics of new technologies as a researcher at the MIT Media Lab.

“Being sensitive to the people at the center of the emergency will require something that the team already seems well aware of: keeping humans in the loop,” she said. According to Darling, the new technology is most likely to be accepted if robots are used “as a supplement to human care, rather than a replacement.”

Monday 20 October 2014

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Death toll climbs to 32 in Natore bus collision

The death toll from an accident involving two passenger buses in Natore has climbed to 32, making it one of the biggest road tragedies in Bangladesh.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has expressed grief over Monday afternoon's mishap on Dhaka-Rajshahi Highway at Borhaigram.

The government has opened an investigation into the mishap.

Police said a bus of Rajshahi-bound Keya Paribahan collided with oncoming Gurudaspur Upazila-bound bus of Othoi Paribahan in the Rejir Morh area around 4:15pm, leaving at least 20 others injured.

Witnesses and survivors blamed the Keya Paribahan bus for the accident saying it ran into the other bus while overtaking a truck.

The impact flung the Keya Paribahan bus onto the side of the road while the other one turned upside down.

Traffic on the key highway resumed in the evening after two hours.

According to survivors, 29 of the victims were passengers of Othoi Paribahan.

Thousands thronged the accident site while the air was thick with wailing of relatives desperately looking for their loved ones.

Confusion arose over the number of dead as police officials at the scene gave varying accounts.

Several of those seriously injured passed away at hospital.

Both the prime minister and health minister have ordered authorities to get the injured properly treated.

Rajshahi Medical College and Hospital Director Brig Gen AKM Nasir Uddin said they had admitted 17 of the injured until 9pm and deployed 10 additional doctors for their treatment.

Around 8:30pm, police's Rajshahi range Deputy Inspector General Iqbal Bahar told reporters that the death toll was 32.

Several injured were being treated at the RMCH.

Around 10pm, he said two others succumbed to their injuries at the hospital failing to respond to treatment.

Earlier, Borhaigram police OC Monirul Islam had said 31 people died in the accident, 20 of them on the spot.

Most of the bodies were brought to Bonparha Highway Police Station. Natore's Superintendent of Police Basudeb Banik said they had been handing over bodies to their relatives from there.

Relatives took over several bodies from hospitals.

Thirty-one of the bodies were handed over to their families, said Officer-in-Charge Fuad Ruhani of Bonpara Highway Police Station, including those of two women and a child.

The body of a Keya Paribahan passenger, hailing from Chittagong, was kept at the police station until 8pm.

Drivers of both buses and their assistants were among the victims.

Monday 20 October 2014

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11 killed in blast at cracker unit near Kakinada

Eleven persons, including 10 women, were killed and seven injured in an explosion at a cracker-making unit at Vakatippa, a tiny coastal village about 25 km from here, on Monday.

Residents of Vakatippa, Uppada Kothapalli and nearby villages heard the ear-splitting sound of the explosion around Monday afternoon and then saw thick clouds of smoke emanating from Manikanta Fireworks, a workshop where firecrackers were being made unauthorisedly and located amidst a coconut grove in the village.

The two sheds of the unit were completely destroyed and the fire personnel extricated the bodies from the debris after putting out the fire. Villagers, with the help of the fire personnel, rescued seven persons who sustained burns and rushed them to hospital where the condition of five was stated to be critical.

Fire engulfed the two huge sheds when residents living in the neighbourhood alerted fire services personnel over telephone. Four fire tenders worked continuously for over two hours to bring the fire under control.

According to the eyewitnesses, there were at least 35 persons, including daily labourers and customers, at the workshop when the explosion occurred. Some of them ran into the farm fields after hearing the sound of the explosion. “The exact number of the deceased is more than the number cited by the officials. They were able to give the details of only 18 out of 35 persons who were there in the workshop at the time of the incident,” said Dasari Satyanarayana, a rights activist from the nearby Subbampeta village, who took part in the rescue operation.

It is suspected that the explosion took place due to a fire in a bundle of crackers that were piled up and stored for Diwali sale. An official from the Fire Services Department, who did not want to be named, said going by the intensity of the explosion there was a huge quantity of crackers in the workshop.

The fire personnel spotted extinguishers in the workshop. The two-decade-old workshop is known for delivering crackers round the year and the production and sales were quite high during the Diwali season. “During the preliminary inquiry, we found that the licence of the workshop expired in March this year and it seems no effort has been made for its renewal,” said B.R. Ambedkar, Revenue Divisional Officer. Home Minister N. Chinna Rajappa visited the spot and consoled the family members of the deceased.

Monday 20 October 2014

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Three more bodies pulled from Nepal disaster zone

Emergency workers in Nepal pulled three more bodies from the snow today, as authorities prepared to end the full scale search for survivors of a deadly snowstorm that struck last Tuesday.

More than 500 people have now been airlifted to safety since heavy snow hit Nepal’s popular Annapurna region last Tuesday at the height of the trekking season, triggering avalanches and killing dozens of people.

Six helicopters fanned out over the affected areas this morning to rescue any trekkers still stuck in the region.

“Although smaller, regular rescues may continue, we hope to complete all emergency evacuations from the snowstorm today,” Ramesh Dhamala of the Trekking Agencies’ Association of Nepal (TAAN) told AFP.

Another TAAN official, Keshav Pandey, said that “a few Nepalese support staff are still unaccounted for”, although the industry body was not aware of any more stranded tourists.

Nepalese officials believe most of those affected have now been pulled to safety or walked out on their own, although it remains unclear how many trekkers were in the area when the storm hit.

Police official Bikash Khanal said 502 trekkers, guides and others have been rescued since operations started on Wednesday, including 299 foreigners.

“We have recovered two bodies from Manang, and another of an Israeli woman from the Thorong Pass,” Khanal told AFP.

It was not immediately clear whether these were included in the death toll of 40 previously given by the TAAN, which included trekkers who were missing and feared dead as well as those whose bodies had been recovered.

The victims include at least 26 hikers, guides and porters on the Annapurna circuit, three yak herders, and five people who were climbing a nearby mountain.

Thousands of people head to the Annapurna region every October, when the monsoon rains clear and the weather is usually at its best for trekking.

The disaster follows Mount Everest’s deadliest avalanche that killed 16 guides in April and forced an unprecedented shutdown of the world’s highest peak.

Impoverished and landlocked Nepal relies heavily on tourism revenues from climbing and trekking.

Monday 20 October 2014

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