Disinfect, Diagnose, and Treat: A Mission of Doctors and EEs Amidst COVID-19

March 30, 2020 by Gary Elinoff

Behind the scenes, engineers are stepping up to help doctors and nurses with life-saving medical devices and technologies.

Viruses, like COVID-19, are still an elusive target for healthcare workers. But doctors and scientists have them in their sights, and engineers are supplying the “weapons” by which medical professionals are able to target the virus and treat affected patients. 

While healthcare professionals are putting their lives on the line to help patients in overburdened hospitals, engineers are working behind the scenes to help these physicians and nurses with life-saving medical devices.

Here are a few ways engineers are mitigating the effects of the coronavirus pandemic through the devices they design.


Disinfecting Robots

Why use a human for a dangerous task when a robot can do it? That’s the philosophy behind the disinfecting robot, robots designed to operate in pathogen-compromised environments. In past articles, we've discussed how AI devices are helping us stay one step ahead of COVID-19, including a portable AI device out of the University of Massachusetts Amherst that helps researchers gather health data for predicting pandemics.

Now, even disinfecting robots are leveling up with this technology embedded at the hardware level. 


AI to Serve Quarantine Rooms

The Boxer-8110AI is not a robotic germ fighter. Rather, it is an AI-based tool designed to provide the “brains” behind robots and other devices operating at the “edge,” which is defined as that point where man-made machines directly interface with the rest of the physical world.



The Boxer-8110AI. Image used courtesy of Aaeon


The Boxer-8110AI is animated by NVIDIA’s Jetson TX2, which enables the exploitation of important deep learning frameworks and AI inferences such as MXNet, Caffe2, and TensorFlow. 

The first robots developed using this powerful tool were designed for the more mundane task of hotel room service. But now, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Alex Hsueh of AAEON explains that "AAEON is currently working with developers and customers to provide a similar solution for deployment in hospitals to deliver food and other supplies to quarantine rooms or even negative pressure wards.”


A Germ-Zapping Robot

The Xenex LightStrike Germ-Zapping Robot is used in the never-ending war against hospital-acquired infections (HAIs). The robot does its damage to viruses through the employment pulsed UV-C spectrum light.


Xenex LightStrike germ-zapping robot

Xenex LightStrike germ-zapping robot. Image used courtesy of Xenex


UV-C light kills viruses via four brilliantly lethal methods, as described in our article on the “germ-zapping” robot. UV-C light is highly dangerous to people, too. Thus the robot is loaded with sensors to register any human presence and to immediately turn off. And, unlike chemically- or biologically-based prophylactics, once the viruses are cooked and power is turned off, there is no residual danger to humans.


Diagnostic Machines

Engineers are also actively developing diagnostic devices for COVID-19. These machines aim to speed up the testing process for potential COVID-19 patients, which as of now, can take several days. 


Lab-on-a-Chip for COVID-19 Testing

Scientists affiliated with the University of Cincinnati’s electrical engineering department have used "lab-on-a-chip" technology to develop a toaster-sized device that rapidly test for COVID-19. Lab-on-a-chip devices are a well-known microfluidic methodology, based on MEMS, that move tiny amounts of fluid through IC-type devices. Once inside, the presence of indicators, such as the COVID-19 virus, can be ascertained.

Developer Jay Han claims that “The portable device can test bodily fluids to quickly identify COVID-19 using a DNA amplifier. COVID-19 can be confirmed within an hour, which is faster than traditional tests that can take three hours using bulky instruments in the lab.”


MiCo BioMed's testing device for COVID-19

MiCo BioMed's testing device for COVID-19 is seeking FDA approval. Image used courtesy of the University of Cincinnati


Each run can test up to six samples in an hour, or over one hundred and forty in a day. And the results are attained on the spot with no need for an outside lab.


Microfluidic Technology for COVID-19 DNA Sequencing

MGI is a genomics platform company that has developed a DNA sequencing system approved by the National Medical Products Administration for COVID-19 testing. SkyWater, a US-based foundry, is supplying the critical microfluidic technology that MGI requires as a critical component of its DNBSEQ-T7 genetic sequencer. This input will be instrumental for the DNBSEQ-T17 to be used as a rapid COVID-19 sequencer.

Thomas Sonderman, the president of SkyWater explains, “As concerns rise about the coronavirus global pandemic, the pressure is on to enable even faster, more accessible testing. We are pleased to be working with genomics leader MGI and playing a role as a US manufacturer in cutting-edge technology solutions that are making an important contribution to the detection of COVID-19.”


The Race to Produce Ventilators

No device is more critical in the treatment of COVID-19 than is the ventilator. Medical establishments worldwide have been caught flatfooted, and these vital devices are in short supply. Engineers are racing nonstop to make up for the tragic shortage, some of whom are participating in a number of open-source ventilator projects. Other engineers are supplying PCBs for ventilators.


Pumping Out PCBs for Ventilators

One of Würth Elektronik’s specialties is producing PCBs for use in both mobile and intensive care ventilators. Knowing this, the German government called on Würth Elektronik to come through in a pinch, upping its production of PCBs for ventilators.

“Thanks to our three production sites in Germany, we can supply the manufacturers of the ventilators with PCBs in a wide range of technologies at short notice”, explains Thomas Beck, the managing director of sales and marketing.

“We are in a position to accept orders at short notice, produce them smoothly and deliver them reliably. As one of the leading PCB manufacturers in Europe, Würth Elektronik CBT thus makes a valuable contribution to securing the supply chain in this medical emergency,” Beck continues.


Doubling Down on an Open-Source, Low-Cost Ventilator

Based on a project undertaken a decade ago in an undergraduate class, MIT has released a design for a simplified ventilator that can be built for around $100.


MIT emergency ventilator, the E-Vent.

MIT emergency ventilator, the E-Vent. Image used courtesy of MIT


The mechanical heart of this device is simple, the bag valve mask, of which there is no shortage. In the image above, the bag valve mask or "Ambu bag" is the blue component. In ordinary practice, Ambu bags are emergency tools pumped by hand. In MIT’s design, they are animated using an electric motor. 

MIT’s new ventilator is no substitute for tested and regulated devices now used in modern hospitals. But they can be built and distributed quickly, which is a key priority as coronavirus cases rise.


Are You Involved?

Are you working on devices that directly intersect with the coronavirus pandemic? How have you seen your efforts develop into diagnostic or treatment technology? Or have your designs brought relief in other ways? Share your experiences in the comments below.