Engineers gather to produce ‘battlefield’ ventilator in war on Covid-19

An intensive two-week Galway hackathon has produced a prototype design

A team of engineers and specialists in medical devices gathered in Galway are finalising the prototype of an emergency ventilator for use in treating critically-ill Covid-19 patients.

They hope the "battlefield" ventilator will help ease a likely surge in demand for these life-saving devices in Ireland, and yet be capable of manufacture all over the world.

They are being supported by a number of multinationals, including medical devices company Boston Scientific which are based in the city – and by medical experts, notably anaesthetists who deploy the technology.

What began as a chat between John Wallace and a fellow engineer on what they could do to help global efforts to counter the Covid-19 pandemic, prompted a doodle and then an intensive two-week hackathon at the end of which a prototype design emerged.


That was completed on Friday by the Covid response team (CRT) of engineers, which had been based at the city’s Clarion Hotel, he confirmed.

Over the weekend an expanded team, relocated to the Boston Scientific campus, has been working almost round the clock to generate the first physical prototype. The project was advanced to the point where components were being built using 3D-printing technology.

The group is networking with groups all over the world, Wallace added, trying to address an acute shortage of ventilators based on alarming WHO projections on likely cases. New York mayor Andrew Cuomo has predicted the city will need 30,000 ventilators when cases peak.

The CRT is hoping to have its first machine to show medical specialists this week, added Wallace, who runs a specialist engineering facility in Tuamgraney, Co Clare, making complex, one-off machines that have to be reliable.

Progress has been rapid, he said. "We have received great support from Boston Scientific, other multinationals and a huge number of others. Enterprise Ireland have been fantastic in helping make connections."

They have been overwhelmed by offers of help from engineers such was the great spirit of co-operation the crisis has triggered. Their initiative is a not-for-profit – a GoFundMe “Keep Breathing” appeal has raised €131,000.

Infections curve

Before the crisis there were 500 ventilators in Irish public hospitals, with 200 in private care. Some 900 more are on order. Galway-based ventilator maker Medtronic is hoping to make 500 ventilators a week, up from 225 currently, to meet demand, which could become a multiple of that if the infections curve is not sufficiently flattened.

“If it goes as I think it will go. It’s scary what they are short of [in ventilators]...The HSE has told us, ‘we will probably need you’,” Wallace said.

Their design is such “you can build them in Rome or New Delhi and versatile enough to be used in challenging circumstances.

While some refer to it as a “battlefield” device, he prefers the term “emergency ventilator” because of the unprecedented circumstances it would be used.

What are known as invasive mandatory ventilators are sophisticated devices usually built by a small number of companies in a highly-regulated sector because of associated liability issues. This is exacerbated in this instance because even with the assistance of a ventilator many patients will still die.

Saving a life

The protocol they envisage is if a patient needs to be ventilated because they are going to die, and the only option is one of these battlefield ventilators, then there is a chance of saving a life and a risk to be taken, he explained.

He said it was not ideal, but if lives could be saved with a ventilator “that had to be built for these times, that will be worth it”.

Manufacturing is the next step, but he estimated this could also be done expeditiously. The outcome was already the equivalent of a fantastic piece of architecture, “except for the sad fact of what it’s going to be used for”.

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan

Kevin O'Sullivan is Environment and Science Editor and former editor of The Irish Times