11 Ways Engineers Are Helping out to Fight Against the Pandemic

Converted snorkel mask ventilators, negative pressure isolation pods, and monitor robots are amongst several impressive designs.
Chris Young
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In response to cases of COVID-19 rising worldwide, the World Health Organization has recently warned that the pandemic is "accelerating." Thankfully, it does say the trajectory can still be changed.

That's why the global scientific community is pulling together in order to develop viable treatments and vaccines to combat the spread of the infectious disease.

Much in the same vein, the world is in desperate need of ingenious solutions to widespread issues such as supply shortages of medical equipment. Here are 11 ways the engineering community has stepped up to the challenge.


1. Italy's reverse-engineered 3D-printed ventilators

After the outbreak soared to uncontrollable levels in Italy this month, Dr Daniele Macchini famously wrote that a scarcity in the medical equipment required to treat patients means that "every ventilator becomes like gold."

That's why a group of volunteers in Italy, including Massimo Temporelli, founder of The FabLab in Milan, decided to help out by making 3D-printed versions of the sorely-needed item.

11 Ways Engineers Are Helping out to Fight Against the Pandemic
Source: 3D Printing Media Network

Despite the possibility of being sued by the medical technology company that manufactures a specific ventilator, the volunteers reverse-engineered the piece that was required and were able to print it in a matter of hours to help save lives.

2. The snorkeling mask ventilator

Only a few days after helping an Italian hospital by playing their part in fixing the broken supply chain for ventilators, the same group of engineers shared a 3D printed design for an adapter that converts snorkel masks into ventilators.

11 Ways Engineers Are Helping out to Fight Against the Pandemic
Source: Easy COVID 19 / Isinnova

Through the use of the adapter, a converted "Easybreath" snorkel mask becomes a functional C-PAP mask for oxygen therapy — a treatment that is critical for the recovery of people with severe cases of COVID-19.

As the volunteer company, called Isinnova, told Futurism, "Easybreath" snorkel-maker Decathlon "was immediately willing to cooperate" on the design. As Isinnova points out, however, "neither the mask nor the link are certified and their use is subject to a situation of mandatory need."

3. Robots helping populations affected by the pandemic worldwide

Countries throughout the world are deploying robots to help amidst the growing crisis. In Bangkok, Chulalongkorn University has teamed up with Advanced Info Service (AIS) to develop robots that utilize 5G technology to monitor coronavirus patients while keeping doctors in the loop from afar. As Business Insider points out, the city of Wuhan, where the outbreak started, is using robots to spray disinfectant throughout urban spaces.

Other use cases include robots for delivering packages to sick people, robots that take people's temperatures and hand out sanitizing gel, robots that spread awareness on COVID-19, robot assistant doctors, and even robot chefs that prepare food while minimizing human contact.

4. Coronavirus isolation pods made by Mexican engineer

Special fully-sealed isolation pods were recently created by Mexican engineer Fernando Aviles for safely transporting COVID-19 patients. The specially-designed pods are equipped with air pumps that create a negative pressure within the sealed space.

The negative pressure means that, even if the plastic lining of the pod is torn during the transfer of a patient, any fluids will remain inside the isolation pod — an ingenious method for stopping the spread of the infectious disease amongst healthcare workers.

5. UV light-emitting disinfection robots

UV light disinfectant robots weren't specifically developed for the COVID-19 pandemic and they haven't been definitively proven to be effective at eradicating the virus (SARS COV-2) from surfaces — and yet, demand has skyrocketed to the point that companies are sending truckloads of the machines to different countries worldwide.


Per Juul Nielsen, chief executive of UVD Robots, a subsidiary of Blue Ocean Robotics, told the BBC that "coronavirus is very similar to other viruses like MERS and SARS. And we know that they are being killed by UV-C light."

Hospitals worldwide seem to be trusting that this is true, as demand is sky-high for the robots which use eight light bulbs to emit concentrated UV-C ultraviolet light over hospital surfaces. This type of light has been shown to destroy viruses, bacteria, and other harmful microbes by damaging their DNA and RNA so that they can no longer multiply. 

6. Oxford University and King's College prototype ventilator for mass production

Engineers, anesthetists, and surgeons from the University of Oxford and King's College London are working on one of the many new ventilator designs needed to help patients with severe conditions. Though it is less advanced than other existing ventilator designs, it has been designed for its quick construction and deployment time.

As a University of Oxford statement on the "OxVent" project highlights, "by pooling available expertise from inside and outside the University, and making the design freely available to local manufacturers, we are pleased to be able to respond to this challenge so quickly."

7. 3D-printed 'Made in Catalonia' ventilator

After Italy, Spain currently has the second-highest death toll in the world for the coronavirus — at over 3,400 deaths, Spain has recently surpassed the number of deaths in China. As with any country currently suffering a wave of COVID-19 cases, ventilators are in very high demand.

That's why the Consorci de la Zona Franca (CZFB), HP, Leitat (Tecnio), CatSalut, and several other companies have teamed up to make a scalable design.

As the above tweet by Spanish publication El Periódico points out, the manufacture of the respirator started on Monday.

8. More open-source ventilator designs

It's not just Spain and Italy that are suffering of course, and even countries with relatively low cases have to be prepared. It is heartening then that engineers worldwide have been supplying their work as open-source documents and looking for global collaborations to help out hospitals in need.

Take the Edison HealthOS open-source ventilator, which is looking for engineers and medical volunteers to be able to approve its design.

Or the student-designed OxyGEN prototype that can be made using plywood or acrylic glass.

Of course, designs need to be rigorously tested before they can be approved for use on patients and, much like with Isinnova's converted snorkel mask ventilator, some of these makeshift concepts will only be used in the most desperate situations.

9. Artificial intelligence used to analyze self-isolation habits

Some countries have taken longer than others to announce police-enforced lockdowns. In the United Kingdom, for example, the decision was only enforced yesterday. According to research by Vivacity Labs, a startup that makes camera-based traffic sensors, the enforcement was severely needed.

11 Ways Engineers Are Helping out to Fight Against the Pandemic
Source: Vivacity Labs

Until yesterday, Brits had only been advised to self-isolate. Using its artificial intelligence (AI) traffic sensors Vivacity Labs researchers deducted that the UK government's advice had only resulted in a 30% reduction in pedestrian activity from the week starting on February 3.

The drop in traffic was even smaller with car and motorcycle traffic down only 15% and cyclists down by only 13%. The research is based on anonymous data from over 200 sensors installed across 10 UK cities.

10. U.S. army corps engineers convert buildings to provide 10,000 new beds

Confirmed cases of the coronavirus have surged in New York in the last week. With over 25,000 cases and 210 deaths at the time of writing, it has become the epicenter of coronavirus cases in the U.S.

That's why the United States Army Corps of Engineers has stepped in to convert buildings into hospitals in order to create new ICU space for the growing number of patients. The plan is expected to provide 10,000 hospital beds in the state of New York.

11. Spain to use AI and robots to quadruple testing capacity

As well as a great necessity for ventilators, and hospital beds, there is also a need to test huge numbers of people while keeping up with the growing number of infections. In Spain, they have turned to AI and robotics to enhance the country's testing capability.

According to BloombergSpain has been testing between 15,000 and 20,000 people a day. Now, the country will use robots and AI to quadruple that capacity.

“A plan to automate tests through robots has been already designed, and Spain has committed to buying four robots that will allow us to execute 80,000 tests per day,” Raquel Yotti, head of Madrid-based Health Institute Carlos III, explained at a health ministry press conference Saturday.

Amidst reports of cases rising worldwide and widespread uncertainty over when and how the pandemic will be controlled, it is encouraging to see scientific and engineering communities come together to save lives by tackle the COVID-19 pandemic head-on.

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