NASA Engineers Make Ventilators for Covid-19 Patients

NASA says a new ventilator, developed by its engineers to treat coronavirus patients, has been approved for emergency use by the FDA.

Engineers at the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California designed and built the high-pressure device in just 37 days.

The sound of success.

Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California celebrate their newly designed prototype ventilator moving into action.
The device, called VITAL – meaning “Ventilator Intervention Technology Accessible Locally” – was designed and built in just 37 days.

It’s intended to free up the supply of traditional ventilators, so they can be used on COVID-19 patients with the most severe symptoms.

Dozens of the space agency’s engineers were involved in the project, including mechatronics engineer Michelle Easter, who usually builds actuators for robotic spacecraft, rather than medical equipment.

“It kind of turned into, you know, instead of thinking; ‘Hey, how can we do something with what we might find in our garage?’ It was a merging of all of the flight practices and processes that we have become accustomed to going through for developing a flight project, kind of combined with what has to happen like, right now,” she says.

In the most severe cases, the coronavirus damages healthy tissue in the lungs, making it hard for them to deliver oxygen to the blood.

Pneumonia can develop, along with a more severe and potentially deadly condition called acute respiratory distress syndrome, which can damage other organs.

Ventilators feed oxygen into the lungs of patients with severe respiratory problems through a tube inserted down the throat.

The machines are also used routinely to help other hospital patients breathe, namely those undergoing surgery while under general anesthesia.

NASA says VITAL is not designed to replace traditional hospital ventilators, which can last for years and are built for a broad range of medical uses.

Instead, the device is intended to last just three to four months and – with its high-pressure – is tailored for COVID-19 patients.

It’s also cheaper to build, composed of fewer parts and can be modified for use in field hospitals, NASA says.

“With a spacecraft, once we launch it and it’s out in space, if something goes wrong, you know, nobody can go up there and fix that one little thing,” says Easter.

“And so, in that regard, we’re used to having to very, very meticulously analyze any potential fault scenario that we could encounter for a spacecraft. And for a medical device, we took that same exact approach.”
NASA said Thursday (30 April) the prototype ventilator had been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use under its ventilator “Emergency Use Authorization”.

The office that manages JPL is offering a royalty-free license to manufacturers worldwide.

They’re also contacting the commercial medical industry to find manufacturers for the device.

Easter says they’ve received interest from potential production partners around the world, not just in the US.

“It’s just been really next level. I think a lot of us really don’t know how it’s going to be to adjust to going back to just working on spacecraft. Yeah, it’s a really interesting paradigm shift for sure,” she says.

The new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms for most people.
For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness or death.

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In This Story: COVID-19

Covid-19 is the official WHO name given to the novel coronavirus which broke out in late 2019 and began to spread in the early months of 2020.

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The main symptoms of coronavirus are:

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  • a high temperature (e.g. head feels warm to the touch)
  • shortness of breath (if this is abnormal for the individual, or increased)

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