By Georgia Parmelee
Father-son team work on emergency ventilator, empowering the healthcare system to fight COVID-19
Brian Singer was in the middle of studying for final exams in Westchester, New York when his father Neil got a call from Professor Alex Slocum at MIT, asking him to help design a low-cost emergency ventilator. Singer stopped everything, requesting exam extensions, so he could help his father with the project and apply what he had been trained to do as an electrical and computer engineer at Georgia Tech.
“At the time, New York City cases of COVID-19 were doubling by the day and not much was known about the virus yet,” said Singer, a 2020 graduate from the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “Predictions were being made that the medical system might collapse, similar to Italy. An actual crisis was going on, so it was clear that the only option was to try and help my dad where I could to get these ventilators built.”
While his father, an engineer, worked on the control theory of the ventilator — the way the actual motors of the ventilator would work — Singer focused on programming the microcontroller to communicate with a touch screen LCD and other peripherals, which included designing the user interface.
“My dad worked on refining how the motor would adjust its speed based on various inputs,” said Singer, “while I focused on how doctors would interface with the machine through screens. For example, I built an application programming interface (API) that would enable interfacing with the controller hardware and display information such as pressure on the screen.”
Boyce Technologies Emergency Ventilator with the Singers' controller
The emergency ventilator itself is a backup option if a hospital runs out of their own supply. Singer explains that it can keep someone alive, but doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of an expensive ventilator. It works by a motor that squeezes air out of an Ambu bag — a self-inflating, handheld bag that provides positive pressure ventilation to patients who are not breathing. And, it’s the Singers' controller and API that allow doctors to control various breathing parameters, such as breaths per minute or tidal volume.
While the Singers worked on their ventilator, Professor Slocum had another team in New York City working in tandem as a failsafe to ensure the ventilator prototype was up and running quickly. The team in New York developed a controller for the ventilator that was easier to prototype, but it was unable to scale in manufacturing. The Singers designed the industrial- and medical-grade controller that could be scaled up. Together the teams are aiming to create a new ventilator version that will be used in communities around the world. The New York City team completed the first round of emergency ventilators to be used in the U.S., and the Singers' version will be first manufactured in Massachusetts and South Africa as the international version.
“For the international ventilator that we’ve created, it can be run using common automotive windshield wiper motors,” said Singer. “Because we are using an easy-to-source part, it can scale, and it will also cost significantly less, whereas normal ventilators can run up to tens of thousands of dollars. The ventilator design will also be open sourced for any manufacturer to use.”
The ventilator also needed to be quickly rushed through rounds of medical device approval. Emergency FDA approval was granted in a matter of weeks. The first version of the ventilator, Spiro Wave, is currently being used on patients in New York City.
“We were told that in two days, researchers needed to test the ventilator on a pig,” said Singer. “So, we pulled all-nighters building the ventilators so they could start testing.”
It’s been a team effort to create the emergency ventilators and the project continues to evolve.
“Every day there are new people helping out,” said Singer. “We are one big network of engineers, all focused on how to address the challenges that COVID-19 has presented to the healthcare system.”