Tyrone Burke, July 20, 2020

Carleton University Rapid Response Research Grants: E-Health, Technology, AI and Autonomous Systems

The COVID-19 pandemic has created new challenges and emphasized the urgency of grappling with social issues like inequality. The complexity of this crisis demands the mobilization of experts in many disciplines, and the academic community has answered the call. In April 2020, Carleton launched the Rapid Response Research Grants program to help build our understanding of COVID-19 and the ways in which the pandemic is impacting our lives. This funding initiative is providing $250,000 to 59 research projects being undertaken by researchers from all five of Carleton’s line faculties: Arts and Social Sciences, Engineering and Design, Public Affairs, Science, and the Sprott School of Business. This is the last of five stories covering these projects.

COVID-19 Research: E-Health, Technology, AI and Autonomous Systems

COVID-19 has presented us with a need for new technologies – and novel ways to use technologies that we already have.

Dr. Gabriel Wainer of the Department of Systems and Computer Engineering is using existing 3D models of campus buildings to determine how the virus diffuses in indoor environments. His team is using Geographical Information Systems and Carleton’s Digital Campus Building Information Model (BIM) map to make models that are extensions of the susceptible-infected-recovered (SEIR) models that are used to predict the dynamics of the pandemic. These will enable the study of different strategies for returning to campus, and will be made available online for remote collaboration and use by decision makers.

If only one person is running a fever, it could be caused by almost anything. But if a thousand people living near each other have a fever, you might have a major problem on your hands. Dr. Paulo Garcia of the Department of Systems and Computer Engineering believes that sharing health data with networks of contacts can help us manage outbreaks of disease. By sharing anonymized health data through mobile phones or wearable technologies like a FitBit, it might be possible to proactively identify hotspots of COVID-19 before patients begin turning up at local hospitals.

It has proven difficult to predict the spread of COVID-19, owing in part to a large number of asymptomatic carriers. In order to effectively manage future outbreaks, we will need to be able to identify people who should be quarantined. Dr. Wei Shi of the School of Information Technology and Dr. Jean-Pierre Corriveau of the School of Computer Science have begun testing a privacy-preserving contact tracing app that could help do that. The app delivers exposure alerts to users who could be at risk because they’ve come into contact with an infected person. It doesn’t collect data on users, and has been designed to prevent cyber-attacks. It’s also easy to use. Once it has been installed on a user’s phone, everything else is automatic.

Drones can be adapted to all sorts of applications in the context of the pandemic. They could be used to maintain physical distancing while delivering supplies like food or medicine to high risk areas. Drones are made of a variety of materials and contain sensitive electronics, and the virus can survive for hours or days on the aircraft.  To ensure safety, they would need to be regularly decontaminated, but it is possible that the process could degrade a drone’s airworthiness or damage the electronics. Dr. Jeremy Laliberté of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering is studying the decontamination methods used on manned aircraft, and working to develop processes that are safe to use on drones.

When the pandemic hit, we all needed to adapt to working online. For schools and universities, that presented a major challenge. Even when students are attending online classes, it can be difficult to gauge whether they are actually learning without any face-to-face contact. Dr. Omair Shafiq of the School of Information Technology is developing software that monitors and tracks student engagement within learning management systems. This will give instructors insight into whether students are engaging with course materials, and help identify students who are not — before they get bad grades.

There are also emerging technologies that will help keep health care workers safe — at least 1,000 of them have died from COVID-19 during the first months of the pandemic. Dr. Mojtaba Ahmadi of the Department of Mechanical Engineering is developing a robotic platform to remotely assess patients, which would enable health care workers to keep physically distant, and allow collection of vital signals from the patient, such as heart signals.  The platform is being tested at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO), and has advanced sensing capabilities, medical instruments, and teleconferencing capabilities that allow doctors and nurses to speak with their patients.

A lonely female senior citizen with a mask looking out the window

For intelligent autonomous health care systems to be widely adopted, patients will need to trust them and engage with them. Elderly people could be especially unlikely to accept these tools, and Dr. Vinod Kumar and Dr. Uma Kumar of the Sprott School of Business are studying elderly people’s acceptance of them. They’re exploring what level of trust elderly people have in autonomous care systems that are embedded with ambient intelligence. They will seek to identify which types of design, development, and deployment strategies would be most successful in gaining that trust, which will be a crucial element of their acceptance.

Dr. Scott Bucking of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering is using his expertise in tiny homes to develop a rapidly deployable mobile COVID-19 testing unit with integrated testing equipment. He’s studying how pedestrians move under physical distancing measures, and experimenting with a variety of tiny home configurations that could improve the efficiency of testing by optimizing the space where it’s happening.

It might also be possible to make the testing process more efficient with developing techniques that give results more quickly. Dr. Ravi Prakash of the Department of Electronics is seeking to identify virus biomarkers that can be detected with a point of care biosensing device. Currently, samples are being sent to centralized labs, and it can take several days to obtain results. If it is possible to identify biomarkers that are unique to the SARS-CoV-2 virus and integrate them into a point of care device, we could test many more people, much more quickly.

But even before patients turn up at COVID-19 testing sites, we should be able to identify the virus. When people are infected, SARS-CoV-2 is present in their gut — and their stool. By testing sewage, researchers have been able to identify the virus as much as a week before it appears in the community. Dr. Banu Örmeci of the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering is developing wastewater testing monitoring tools that can be used as an early warning surveillance system.  After COVID-19 levels are brought down or the virus has been eliminated from a town or city, wastewater testing could alert public health officials to its return, enabling them to scale-up human testing and contact tracing and suppress the outbreak without having to impose lockdown.

Disease has plagued humans for millennia, and some epidemics have been better documented than others, but it is certain that no pandemic has ever produced as many YouTube videos and Reddit threads as this one. Dr. David Dean of the Department of History is studying the role that science and technology have played as we adapted to pandemic living, in collaboration with Ingenium, formerly the Canada Science and Technology Museum. He’s creating a living archive of these changes by interviewing workers in key areas such as food delivery, residential care, and public transport — as well as capturing new everyday experiences — the distinct look and feel of an era of novelty Zoom backgrounds and protestors in surgical masks — with the hope that one day, once this crisis has passed, that archive can be displayed, and we can all look back at a moment in time that was quite unlike any other.

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