By CBSLA Staff

IRVINE (CBSLA) — With COVID-19 expected to change the way people work and interact with each other for the foreseeable future, University of California researchers have been awarded a $1.2 million grant to develop robots that can conduct remote healthcare exams and keep people in quarantine connected with the world outside their homes.

The grant was awarded to researchers at UC Irvine, UC San Diego, and UCLA. The project’s goal is to develop easy-to-operate, low-cost UC Iris robots, particularly with Latino communities in mind because they have been hit hardest by COVID-19 in California.

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Rates of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths have dropped in recent weeks and vaccinations are underway across the country. But public health officials say variants that are increasingly circulating make it necessary for people to continue to wear masks and observe physical distancing guidelines.

The research to develop these inexpensive robots will also consider how to keep healthcare workers, seniors, and people with cancer and suppressed immune systems safe from the continuing danger of COVID-19.

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(credit: UCSD Healthcare Robotics Lab)

“When communities reopen, not everyone will be able to return to in-person activities,” UCI research scientist Veronica Ahumada-Newhart said in a statement. “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 robots will be designed with tactile sensing, manipulation capabilities and technology to transmit information through touch, according to UCI officials. Part of the research will determine how best to deploy such robots to improve telehealth and give operators the feeling of being “truly immersed in a remote location and give them a sense of presence and touch.”

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