6 Covid-19 Ventilator Projects Contributed by Engineers

Article By : Cabe Atwell

The DIY Hack-a-Vent Innovation Challenge inspires new ventilator designs — some with creative ways to leverage existing technology like breathing air diving systems, breast pumps, or Raspberry Pi controller boards...

These are certainly unprecedented times, and so much is happening around us. Amid a pandemic, we find ourselves with shortages; medical supplies need to reach our healthcare workers and patients faster. However, there are those — individuals, schools, companies — who are stepping up in an effort to provide solutions. The Department of Defense DIY Hack-a-Vent Innovation Challenge is one among many initiatives pushing for innovative ways to meet the critical demand for ventilators. This device is lifesaving for many COVID-19 patients. The stated mission of the Hack-a-Vent Innovation Challenge is to “pool brilliant minds and expertise to develop a low-cost, non-FDA approved mechanical ventilation support system that can be rapidly produced at local levels with widely available resources,” according to the DOD. Here are a few of the proposals and other efforts by engineers to ease this time of crisis.

MIT-based Engineering Team Develops Open-Source Emergency Ventilators

The MIT E-Vent (emergency ventilator). (Source: MIT)

The E-Vent (emergency ventilator) project began March 12 as an effort by a group of MIT-based engineers to enable rapid deployment of an open-source, low-cost ventilator. The key to their solution is an Ambu bag, a hand-operated plastic bag resuscitator already on-hand in large quantities in hospitals. By developing a mechanical system to perform the squeeze and release of the Ambu bag, it is possible to automate the process and use the bags for extended periods — something a human being would not be able to do. As around 1 million cycles would be needed to support a patient over a two-week period, it is crucial that the system does not damage the bag and that it is controllable, since unexpected failure could be fatal. In under a week, the team began their first realistic test of a prototype and are carefully developing the project to ensure patient safety.

MPS Engineering is in Development for an Open-Source “Automated Bag Mask Resuscitator”

Monolithic Power Systems’ Automated Bag Mask Resuscitator. (Source: MPS)

The engineering department at Monolithic Power Systems (MPS) is in development and testing for their own ventilator design based on the MIT E-Vent and other open-source projects. The simple mechanical design is a combination of machined, 3D-printed, 2D-cut, and commercial drivetrain components along with standard components utilized in the power and motor systems. They are testing and updating their design using a lung simulator test machine under guidance from a doctor to ensure the appropriate function of the machine. Their stated next steps as of April 10 include additional design updates, added functionalities, and calibration. Their expertise in motor control and power supply can be used to quickly to automate a normally manual pump process and extend the use of bag mask resuscitators.

BLU3 Proposes Turning a Diving System Design into Ventilators

BLU3 proposes a ventilator solution with their Nemo breathing air diving system at the core. (Source: BLU3)

BLU3, a manufacturer of diving equipment, submitted a proposal for their own ventilator to the Hack-a-Vent challenge. They suggest using an existing product, Nemo, a breathing air diving system, at the core of their solution. As it centers around existing manufacturing processes, they can easily duplicate those efforts into other manufacturing plants to scale up production efforts. The idea is that Nemo’s electronic regulator can be modified for use as a respiration detector with minor software modifications and so minimal added cost. Their submitted proposal suggests they would be able to produce ventilators at a rate of approximately 2,500 units/week with a two-week startup period. The ventilator itself would be able to run continuously with access to wall-power or powered with 12-volt batteries.

OnScale’s BreathEasy project proposes patient-specific digital lung modeling to aid in critical ventilator requirement decisions. (Source: OnScale)

OnScale, a cloud engineering simulation platform provider, has a different idea for how to better utilize ventilators and save lives. They have announced a new project to allow collaboration between multiphysics FEA/CFD vendors, medical device manufacturers, engineers, and doctors to create digital twins of the lungs of COVID-19 patients to help doctors improve patient outcomes. Currently, doctors are relying on textbook predictions of ventilator requirements, but the use of patient-specific digital lung modeling may accurately predict oxygen and blood flow, aiding in these critical decisions. More accurate predictions will maximize ventilator utility — OnScale predicts even a 10% improvement may save thousands of lives.

Engineers Recycle Breast Pumps into Ventilators

University of Maryland’s Techport engineers transform breast pump into low-cost viable ventilator. (Source: Techport, University of Maryland) 

In a case that goes beyond reusing existing manufacturing procedures, engineers working at the University of Maryland’s Techport have devised a method of retrofitting old breast pumps (many may have still lying around) into ventilators. Brandi Gerstner — who says she spent a lot of time with breast pumps as a mom — using an X-acto knife and a screwdriver, worked out a method of reversing the suction power of the pumps to expel air instead. From there, a group of engineers began further modifications to sync the timing of the air to the recommended inhale-exhale ratio and added an emergency sensor to ensure consistent air pressure. The group is already using a ventilator testing kit in consultation with a pulmonologist and estimates that, using donated pumps, they’ll be able to quickly produce ventilators for around $250/unit — a huge decrease from the approximately $30,000/unit they can cost now. 

Raspberry Pi’s proposal for hospital ventilators 

Raspberry Pi’s proposal reduces cost and speed production for hospital ventilators. (Source: Raspberry Pi)

Raspberry Pi’s $5 single-board computers, ideal as control boards, may be just the product to reduce cost and speed production for hospital ventilators. The Raspberry Pi Foundation has reserved some of its stock for just this reason, and they have the ability to produce orders quickly for ventilator manufacturers. In general, it is difficult to scale up production on control boards due to the number of components involved, but Raspberry Pi CEO Eben Upton says that the company “builds to stock” rather than “building to order,” and so is better equipped to handle a massive demand. Their least expensive, least component-intensive board has enough processing power to meet the needs of a ventilator, which are relatively modest. There are currently no RPi-powered ventilators that have been tested in the US. However, one model is currently being tested by a medical team in Colombia. We may see these single-board computers easing cost and demand constraints in time, especially as more innovation challenges encourage engineers to develop their own solutions.