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Aspiring engineers, working from home, meet the low-cost ventilator challenge

The ultimate self-directed PBL experience


Aspiring engineers, working from home, meet the low-cost ventilator challenge

A great education is no match for the inspiration to save lives.

Like nearly all students, Grant Kahl, a freshman at the Colorado School of Mines, and Eric Love, a high school senior at the International School of the Americas in San Antonio, had their formal education abruptly disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic in mid-March.

But, instead of kicking back and joining their friends for marathon Fortnite sessions while occasionally completing a long-distance school assignment, the pair of highly motivated problem solvers have chosen to work 12- to 16-hour days designing, building, programming, and tweaking a low-cost Ambu Bag Ventilator System. (Check out their video here.)

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Call it the ultimate self-directed project-based learning experience that no instructor or classroom could replicate.

Grant and Eric’s friendship developed as teammates on the USA Robotics Club in San Antonio, where they competed in FIRST® Tech Challenge, MATE ROV Competition, and other robotics activities. Grant has always favored mechanical and electrical engineering, which he is pursuing at CSM, and Eric focuses on programming, hence his plan to begin pursuing a degree in computer science engineering at Texas A&M this fall.
The pair’s complementary mix of engineering expertise, along with contributions from several of their high school and college friends who share that passion for robotics and engineering, has proven a formidable foundation for designing and building functioning prototypes of a ventilator that could one day help patients suffering life-threatening ailments in remote and underdeveloped areas. The team’s highly compact portable ventilator is built from an Arduino UNO Rev 3 motherboard, a TETRIX® Robotics rack-and-pinion system from Pitsco Education, multiple potentiometer and pressure sensors, and a housing made of high-density polyethylene and acrylic.

The aspiring engineers, while self-quarantining, embarked on the build just to see whether they could conquer the challenge of creating a functioning ventilator, but their tinkering quickly turned to determination to address a life-and-death situation. As their designs improved and the first prototype took shape, they overcame an obstacle that has stumped many novice engineers: configuring and programming regulators for mandatory breathing and responsive breathing.

“The responsive breathing is what kind of sets us apart from those units being produced right now,” said Grant, who explained that responsive breathing is when a patient increases their ability to breathe independently, decreasing the need for ventilator assistance. “It really makes ours more of a realistic ventilator that could be used on patients who need assistance breathing.

“We talked with a respiratory therapist, trying to learn what they need on their units in the hospitals,” he added. “But what really helped was Tesla releasing information on their own high-end ventilator, and they did a full teardown of all the components. That really showed you what all is needed. That helped us build a foundation. Learning about their oxygen mixing, their breathing mechanism, and their controls was really helpful for us.”

US Army ventilator challenge

Dr. Jeff Kahl, a medicinal chemist and Grant’s father who has funded the team’s efforts so far, asked officials at nearby Fort Sam Houston about checking the new device’s viability on a test lung instrument.

“The test lung has given us an indication that the unit is working and how much air is being moved, the intrapulmonary pressure, and things like that,” Jeff said. “So, they’re able to actually measure some good key experimental values on this instrument.”

A colonel at Fort Sam Houston who saw the prototype suggested the young inventors consider entering the US Army’s xTech: COVID-19 Ventilator Challenge, which they did just one week after starting their project. The Army’s challenge solicits ideas and designs for combatting the pandemic and aims to yield solutions that eventually lead to production and deployment.

Low cost, high function

Grant and Eric are gaining an unexpected business education as they formed Kepler Enterprises LLC, a name they used during their robotics club days, and filed for a provisional patent on their creation.

A key requirement of the Army challenge is to produce a low-cost solution for use on front lines and in parts of the world where US humanitarian aid must be as cost-efficient as possible. Even with key features including battery backup, pressure and power-loss alarms, and a stepper motor, the Kepler device checks in at a fraction of the cost for a high-end ventilator that can run more than $20,000. Initial cost for raw materials is about $150 per unit, and they estimate a manufacturing cost of about $500 per unit after all factors are considered.

Making a difference

In line with the International School of the Americas’ vision for its students to reach their potential as global citizens, Eric is eager to contribute to those not only in his community and country but possibly across the world. And he and Grant are doing this through an at-home, self-directed project-based learning experience that is rare in the academic setting.

“This has taught me a lot more than I could ever learn from any class,” Eric said.

Regardless whether their design is selected as a finalist in the Army’s challenge, Grant, Eric, and their teammates have taken a giant step in their education – outside of the classroom – and are confident they can collaborate and problem-solve in the face of a real-world crisis.

“While the initial goal was to help with the current pandemic here at home, we quickly realized that this technology could be applied at a larger scale with the ability to help humanity around the world, especially with third-world countries who can’t afford expensive ventilators,” Grant said. “While the end goal has been shifted, our motivation has never changed, and we want to make a difference in the world.”

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