‘It’s That Or Nothing:’ Experimental low-cost ventilator as a last resort for COVID-19 patients 

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Engineers are working tirelessly to create a low-cost ventilator to assist those struck with COVID-19. Ventilators are in high demand and very expensive, so this will help those who cannot afford it but need the help.  Photo provided by Sam Pedrotty.

Engineers are working tirelessly to create a low-cost ventilator to assist those struck with COVID-19. Ventilators are in high demand and very expensive, so this will help those who cannot afford it but need the help. Photo provided by Sam Pedrotty.

A team of engineers are working on creating a low-cost automated emergency ventilator that could eventually be used for COVID-19 patients when there are no available FDA-approved ventilators. 

A ventilator is a device that provides air to someone when they are unable to get air themselves, said Sam Pedrotty, one of the initial designers of the low-cost ventilator. Symptoms of COVID-19 include shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, which may require a ventilator. 

With a steep increase of COVID-19 cases, there is a likelihood that hospitals run out of FDA-approved ventilators. The team’s low-cost automated emergency ventilator, or LCAEV, could serve as an intermediary until a patient can receive an FDA-approved ventilator. 

“Basically, without [enough ventilators], care providers are making decisions of who gets one and who doesn’t, or who dies and who doesn’t … It is a device of last resort, if and only if you run out, it gives you something that has some of the capabilities, just enough to keep alive during the increased cases and until the real manufacturers increase production.” 

An FDA-approved ventilator pumps air into the patient’s lungs through a tube that has been inserted into their windpipe, while detecting the speed and pressure with which to produce oxygen. With all of these features, it takes a lot of specialized parts and proper testing, and it can take months to produce, Pedrotty said. 

Their low-cost automated emergency ventilator works similarly to a bag valve mask, sometimes known by Ambu Bag, Pedrotty said. The bag valve mask is a hand-held device in which someone squeezes the bag to force oxygen into a patient who is not breathing properly. The low-cost ventilator would do the squeezing on its own through a programmable interface. Their device is predicted to only be able to maintain squeezing for about a few weeks, while the FDA-approved devices can last for over 10,000 hours. 

Jacob Kowalski, one of the team members and a University of Connecticut alum, said that the team’s ventilator is significantly cheaper because they can 3D-print some parts or order the rest from Amazon. The total cost for one of the team’s ventilators is less than $300. 


The low-cost ventilator is not FDA-approved as of now. The engineers hope to have it approved soon on the chance hospitals run out of defibralators with cases growing each day.  Photo provided by Sam Pedrotty.

The low-cost ventilator is not FDA-approved as of now. The engineers hope to have it approved soon on the chance hospitals run out of defibralators with cases growing each day. Photo provided by Sam Pedrotty.

“The types of ventilators you find in hospitals or ICUs are typically in the $25,000-50,000 range,” Kowalski said. “Our ventilator in its current state is less than $300. The cost is low in part because it’s a quick and dirty solution and sacrifices much of the functionality and abilities of a premium ventilator. For example, ours aren’t designed to last nearly as long, because they’re meant as an emergency last resort, not a long-term replacement.” 

Currently, the team is wrapping up a long-term duration test on a balloon-like testing lung that is comparable to the average adult male’s lung, Pedrotty said. The test began March 27 to assess longevity and any failures and to refine design. Throughout the testing, they have been able to incorporate feedback and make adjustments, such as trying to make the device portable. 

Kowalski said that the ventilator is still in the prototype stage and they still have changes to make before having a “final product.” 

“We have been working on getting input from medical professionals,” he said. “Usually we talk to these professionals about what they want to see from the ventilator in terms of the measurements it needs to obtain and display, the capabilities it should have, and what sorts of situations it must guard against. For example, a patient breathing in too quickly can cause issues. Then that feedback gets incorporated into the design. We also discuss which areas may most need the ventilator.” 

Before the team’s ventilator is used with any patient, it would need to be approved by the Institutional Review Board, Pedrotty said. 


The desire for a low-cost ventilator is nothing new, but with COVID-19 taking over the world the need has increased exponentially. This has given the engineers a way to make their own impact without being in the field.  Photo provided by Sam Pedrotty.

The desire for a low-cost ventilator is nothing new, but with COVID-19 taking over the world the need has increased exponentially. This has given the engineers a way to make their own impact without being in the field. Photo provided by Sam Pedrotty.

Pedrotty said he welcomes all feedback, from health care providers to programmers. He has posted on GitLab, an open-source development platform, all of his software and hardware so anyone can download the team’s code, 3D-print parts and order pieces from Amazon. With this information readily available, he encourages others to experiment and provide comments.

Pedrotty stresses that the team hopes no one would ever have to use one of their ventilators, but they are simply preparing in case the pandemic’s worst case scenario happens. 

“It’s that or nothing,” he said. 

Pedrotty said that there has always been a need for a low-cost ventilator, especially in low-resource areas that cannot afford multiple costly ventilators. Even when the pandemic is no longer a pressing issue, he said that the programming will continue to be helpful and the need for a cheaper ventilator will still exist. 

“Do what you can and make the world a better place,” Pedrotty said. “We are trying to do that in a responsible way.” 

Kowalski said that even if the team’s ventilator is never used by a COVID-19 patient, he still feels it is an important project to be a part of. 

“While we understand that sitting at home is helping to save lives, it can still be difficult to feel like you’re making a difference when you’re sitting on your couch all day,” Kowalski said.  “I think this project really helps everyone involved feel like we’re working on something important and necessary and putting our skills to good use, even if it is our hope that it never has to be used.”

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Rachel Philipson is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at rachel.philipson@uconn.edu.

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