UCLA MAE Professor Veronica Santos will participate in a University of California Multicampus Research Programs and Initiatives (MRPI) project on advanced robots to address inequities in health care.

Santos is co-principal investigator on the MRPI project “Robot-facilitated Health Equity in Post-Pandemic California and Beyond.” She will collaborate with colleagues from other UC campuses to develop a new generation of telemanipulation robots designed to protect front-line health care workers from infectious diseases while helping those isolated at home because of high infection risk to connect with their communities.

“Our interdisciplinary team is excited to develop new robotics capabilities to directly address inequities in health care and community engagement that have been exacerbated by COVID-19,” said Santos, who is director of the Biomechatronics Laboratory at UCLA Samueli and the school’s associate dean for equity, diversity, inclusion and faculty affairs.

The researchers will design easy-to-use, low-cost, mobile robots to help grasp objects, open doors and perform other tasks to facilitate telehealth remote exams.

Funded by a $1.2 million grant over four years, the team is led by UC San Diego’s Laurel Riek, an associate professor of computer science and engineering. The researchers will design easy-to-use, low-cost, mobile robots to help grasp objects, open doors and perform other tasks to facilitate telehealth remote exams. Santos will bring expertise in artificial tactile sensing and perception, as well as grasp and manipulation with human, prosthetic and robotic hands to lead development of new haptics technologies to support teleoperators so they can truly feel immersed in the patient’s remote location, affording them a sense of presence and touch.

Millions of people at high risk of infection, including the elderly and those with cancer and suppressed immune systems have been further isolated due to COVID-19, leading to depression, suicide, dementia, heart disease and other adverse conditions.

In addition to advancing state-of-the-art mobile telemanipulation, tactile sensing, and haptics technology, the researchers will also study the best ways to deploy this technology. They will work closely with health care workers across the UC system, including emergency medicine specialists and hospitalists, to integrate the robots into critical care settings. The team will also explore how these robots can improve quality of life for isolated groups and increase their independence.

Team members of the research also include project co-principal investigator Veronica Ahumada-Newhart, a UC Irvine research scientist; Tania Morimoto, a UC San Diego assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering; Jacquelynne Eccles, a Distinguished Professor of Education at UC Irvine; and Kristen Wells, an associate professor of psychology at San Diego State University.

By UCLA Samueli Newsroom

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