Working as an engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, David Van Buren usually spends his time designing and building instruments for space telescopes or robots that will explore other worlds in our Solar System. But for the last month, Van Buren and a group of his colleagues at JPL have been working on a project that is truly unexplored terrain for them: making a ventilator to help patients sick with COVID-19.
While Van Buren had some previous experience in medical engineering, he’d never designed a ventilator before. But he and his co-workers at JPL are used to making things they don’t have any experience making. In fact, they’re used to making things that no one has experience making.
“WE’RE USED TO LOOKING AT NEW PROBLEMS … AND FIGURING OUT HOW TO DO THEM.”
“When a scientist comes to us and says they want to go to a moon of Jupiter and drill into the ice and see what’s underneath, that’s something that’s never been done before,” Van Buren tells The Verge. “We’re used to looking at new problems — things people haven’t done before or at least that we haven’t done before — and figuring out how to do them.”
After a whirlwind 37 days of research, planning, and tinkering, a subset of engineers at JPL have created a prototype they’re calling the VITAL ventilator. A white digital box with a breathing tube attached, the ventilator is somewhere between the sophisticated high-end ventilators that the sickest patients need and a simple ambulatory bag that can be used as a temporary measure to quickly squeeze air into the lungs. The team didn’t want to interfere with the production of the more critical ventilators, so the VITAL ventilator is meant for the patients who still need breathing support but are not in the most dire conditions. It’s a temporary tool designed to last just three to four months in a hospital.
VITAL is tailored specifically for people with COVID-19, which helped to guide its design. “It’s pared down in all the things that it can do, to just retain those functions needed for COVID-19 patients,” says Van Buren.