Cognitive Computing

Cognitive tech in drones could reduce infectious outbreaks

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In 2012, neuroscientist, TEDTalker, inventor James Kozloski’s wife Sumali was in nursing school in Connecticut – just when the state was struggling to deal with some of the highest rates of hospital-acquired infections in the country. The outbreak, for example, contributed 914 cases of “super bug” Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus to the some 80,000 annual cases recorded by the CDC (for comparison, California, with 35 million more residents than CT, had 728 cases in 2012). For Sumali and her colleagues, it meant spending much more time on every process, from putting on gowns, to cleaning surfaces.

The best prevention for MRSA is to keep things clean, from hands to clothing.

This gave James an idea: What if something that MRSA and its ilk couldn’t infect cleaned the hospital doorknobs countertops, and bed railings? Maybe something like a small drone.

After working out the creative and technical details with fellow scientist and master inventor Cliff Pickover, as well as colleagues from IBM’s lab in Melbourne, Tim Lynar, a master inventor in workplace safety, and John Wagner, a mathematician, they filed and were issued patent 9,447,448: Drone-based microbial analysis system.

Protecting us from what we can’t see

More than 1 million drones were sold in the US last year. They’ve gone from military tool, to public use (and acceptance) almost as fast as an infection can spread in a hospital. James envisions small drones swooping into hospital rooms to scan, analyze, and if necessary clean, surfaces before a patient arrives.

“Drones are well suited to accessing places that cleaning personnel would have difficulty reaching and even remembering to clean, like the top of cabinets, or within confined spaces,” said Cliff. “And with cognitive capabilities, our drone system could learn what surfaces and surface varieties are more prone to build up of particular microbes, so as to suggest and carry out sterilization procedures and to make predictions.”

A drone scanning a hospital room for microbes.

A drone scanning a hospital room for microbes.

Two of every 100 people carry MRSA. And spread of infection is easy, even for those trained in using proper equipment and procedures. An autonomous drone with cognitive technology could recognize and confirm MRSA, down to the microbe, and analyze when and where it may have spread – as well as alert hospital staff. By collecting microbe samples through a drone, or fleet of drones, hospitals could ensure safe conditions for their patients.

The decontamination may include, but is not limited to, dispatching a cleaning crew to wipe down and disinfect the positively contaminated area and/or dispatching one or more decontamination drones to the positively contaminated area. The decontamination drones may seek out and identify areas that correspond to the specimen and can disinfect the contaminated areas using various methods including, but not limited to, spraying disinfectant and/or exposing the contaminated area to ultraviolet (UV) light or other types of energy known to kill microbes.

“This patent is about protecting hospitals, manufacturing plants, even farms from what we can’t see, by using new methods for collecting and analyzing data. An integrated system could use a number of ‘hive minded’ autonomous drones to ‘see’ microbes in an environment to analyze, treat, and predict their spread,” said James.

Hospital patients and workers wouldn’t be the only ones to benefit from a device that can’t get sick. Drones could monitor and map bacterial infections just about anywhere. For example, in the US one in six people are affected by food-borne diseases each year. That results in 128,000 hospitalizations, 3,000 deaths, and $9 billion in medical costs. What if a smart drone could spot offending bacteria sooner – at the grocery story, the processing plant, the farm? James, Cliff, Tim, and John’s patent 9,447,448 establishes the blueprint.

Drones analyzing the outdoors for microbes.

Drones analyzing the outdoors for microbes.

IBM Patent Leadership

“Drone-based microbial analysis system” was just one of 8,088 total patents IBM received in 2016. The company’s patent output covers a diverse range of inventions in artificial intelligence and cognitive computing, cognitive health, cloud, cybersecurity and other strategic growth areas. Read more, here.


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