Inside NASA’s race to build a ventilator in 37 days

It started with a chance meeting in the Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL) cafeteria.

A lead engineer ran into JPL’s chief of the engineering and science directorate in early March, and while discussing current events they wondered aloud if there was some way that JPL could contribute to the fight against the coronavirus. They sent out an email asking if anyone had ideas or would volunteer to help, and soon a whole team of engineers assembled.

The result of that chance meeting is a prototype ventilator to aid breathing in critically ill COVID-19 patients, designed in just 37 days. The prototype has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), meaning it can now be manufactured and start being sent out to help ease the chronic shortage of ventilators in U.S. hospitals.

JPL VITAL engineers
Some of the dozens of engineers involved in creating a ventilator prototype specially targeted to COVID-19 patients at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. Called VITAL (Ventilator Intervention Technology Accessible Locally), the prototype was created in 37 days in March and April. NASA/JPL-Caltech

The journey has been an emotional one for the engineers involved, as Chris Yahnker, one of the first volunteers to join the project, told Digital Trends.

“There are times when we were all shedding a tear,” he said. “There aren’t many times in your career when you can truly say, ‘I made a real difference.’”

From space robots to medical ventilators

Yahnker, the group supervisor for extreme environment robotics at JPL, normally works designing robots for NASA to explore the harsh environments of Mars, Venus, Europa, and beyond. But when he received an email about the new project — asking, essentially, if they could build a ventilator out of parts found lying around the house or at the local hardware store — he knew he wanted to get involved.

Over the first weekend, he tooled around in his garage and brainstormed every wild idea he could think of with two or three other people — everything from using plastic water bottles to using the pump from an air mattress.

By the next week, the team realized that they had the opportunity to create something that could really help people. And just before JPL employees were sent home to work remotely, the engineers consulted with a respiratory disease expert from a nearby hospital who explained the details of what doctors needed a ventilator to do for coronavirus patients in particular.

Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California prepare to ship a prototype ventilator
Engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California prepare to ship a prototype ventilator for coronavirus patients to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. NASA/JPL-Caltech

That kicked off a groundswell of interest from other JPL engineers, forming a core team of seven or eight people with the support of dozens of others who worked on designing a new ventilator at astonishing speed.

Making a difference

Engineering a ventilator is one thing. But designing something that meets FDA guidelines, and which could be approved and rolled out quickly was quite another. After all, a design was of little use if it couldn’t be put into hospitals straight away.

Another key concern for the team was that they didn’t want to take away from the supply chain of existing ventilator manufacturers — there would be no point in designing a new ventilator if it was competing with traditional ventilators for a limited supply of parts. So they looked for parts from industries like the welding industry which were cheap and easily available, and which wouldn’t interfere with the manufacture of other ventilators.

They also wanted to make sure that the ventilator could be used with or without a hospital gas supply, so they created two designs — one for use in hospitals with gas lines available and one stand-alone for use in emergency setups.

And, although their focus was on providing ventilators for the U.S. at first, they also wanted to make sure the ventilators could be used internationally, so the design had to allow for the varying electrical voltages and frequencies found throughout the world.

NASA's VITAL ventilator
VITAL (Ventilator Intervention Technology Accessible Locally) is a new high-pressure ventilator developed by NASA and tailored to treat coronavirus patients. NASA/JPL-Caltech

So, how to approach such a challenge? As different as designing robots for exploring the icy moons of Jupiter and designing a piece of medical equipment to assist breathing might be, in some ways a similar approach can be applied to both. The basic questions — What is it that this device needs to do? What are the requirements? — remain the same.

“We took a very similar approach to how we typically go about designing things,” Yahnker explained. “JPL is a big systems developer. That’s what we do really well. We think about the problem, we think about all the interactions, we think about the subcomponents of the system and how they work together, and then we write a robust set of requirements. We followed a lot of that same process here.”

A personal impact

The biggest difference, however, between a typical JPL project and this one was the timescales involved. NASA projects are typically planned out over decades, with a great deal of care taken to include redundancies, backup contingencies, and long-term planning. The ventilators needed to be created as quickly as possible, which meant a radical shift into an iterating mindset.

“Most of us got into engineering because we wanted to make a difference,” Yahnker said, “and working for JPL in space exploration is cool and you do make a huge difference in the world. But those things can take decades to come to fruition. This has been a very different experience. It is moving very quickly, and the need is real. What you’re doing today makes the most immediate impact in the world.”

Doctors give a thumbs up after testing a ventilator prototype
Doctors at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City give a thumbs up after testing a ventilator prototype developed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York City

Talking to doctors on the front lines, in particular, really drove home the importance of providing equipment and how creating a more efficient design can truly save lives. “You really feel good about what you’re doing. It makes the long hours of 10 to 12 hours a day more palatable, not only for me but also for my family, who ask how long I’m going to spend holed up in my home office. When you show them the work you’re doing and the difference you’re making in the world, it feels good.”

Helping humanity as a whole

With the ventilator approved by the FDA, NASA is offering the design as a free license. Now, the team just needs to find a manufacturer to begin producing the ventilators and providing them to hospitals.

The devices are useful and important now, but they are also an indication of what a small group of determined people can do in a time of crisis.

Should the need arise again, engineers like Yahnker and his JPL colleagues are willing and able to help.

“If we can be ready if, god forbid, another thing like this happens in the future, that’s what we’re all in the game for — making sure we can help humanity as a whole,” Yahnker said.

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