March 24, 2020

Coronavirus: Turning windscreen wiper motors into emergency ventilators

The devices can be made in four hours using basic materials

Maija Palmer

6 min read

A group of Spanish innovators is attempting to alleviate the Covid-19 ventilator crisis by developing an ultra-simple machine that uses a car windscreen-wiper motor to turn a manual resuscitation bag into automated breathing aid.

Quick links: "Wikipedia of coronavirus tech" — a list of all the projects How to license your Covid-19 tech 

The machine can be made in four hours by an untrained person, using simple materials such as wood, acrylic or aluminium. “You don’t need special tools. All you need is a saw,” says Lluís Rovira Leranoz, a Barcelona-based robotics maker at prototyping company Protofy, one of the leads on the OxyGEN project.

“These devices are not perfect, they have risks and we hope to never to have to use them except as a last resort,” says Rovira Leranoz.The first devices could be made available to Spanish hospitals within days, with car manufacturer Seat standing by to start producing them in volume, as soon as they have passed initial safety tests.


But the last resort has already arrived at so many Spanish hospitals. Two local healthcare facilities — Hospital Germans Trías i Pujol and Hospital Clínic de Barcelona — have already reached out to the team to see if they can get hold of the device.

“One hospital told us that they have only 60 respirators and they are all already in use — and the epidemic is not stopping,” says Rovira Leranoz.

The blueprints for the device are available on the OxyGEN site, free for anyone to download, and the team says it has had enquiries from around the world — from the US to India and Argentina about using them. Seat has said that, if the design works, it could also use its car manufacturing facilities in China and Mexico to make the devices.

A last resort

We’ve learned a lot about ventilator numbers in the last few weeks. The UK has around 5,000. The US has somewhere around 100,000. Hamilton Medical, a leading ventilator manufacturer, usually makes about 220 a week and hopes to ramp up production to 400, but that will come nowhere near bridging the shortfall the world faces from an escalating Covid-19 crisis.

Blueprints for the device are available on the OxyGEN site, free for anyone to download.

Engineering companies including Airbus, Jaguar Land Rover, Unipart and Rolls-Royce have promised to convert factories to manufacture ventilators, but this could take several weeks to set up.

Some stop-gap measures are going to be needed in the meantime.

Makers around the world are racing to develop different solutions to the ventilator crisis. A young team of 3D printing engineers at Issinova, in Italy, have collaborated with sportswear company Decathlon to turn a snorkelling mask into a DIY ventilator

Picture of a Decathlon snorkelling mask with a valve that turns it into a respiratory mask
Decathlon snorkelling mask with an Issinova valve attached.

There are a number of open-source projects: 

  • The Coronavirus Tech Handbook aims to be a "Wikipedia for coronavirus" pulling together information about all the projects created to combat the pandemic. It has been created by the team at Newspeak House in London and is open for anyone to contribute to. They have launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise £27,000 to develop the project.
  • The world’s largest hackathon, The Global Hack, is being organised by former world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, and former Estonian President, Toomas Hendrik Ilves. It will take place between 9th-12th April and bring together 100,000+ gifted and highly-skilled coders, designers and innovators from all over the world online, with the goal of looking for ways to not only solve the health crisis, but to get the economy restarted again. There is a confirmed prize pool of €75,000, facilitated by the European Commission.
  • You can now download the design of the UCL-Ventura breathing aid designed by UCL, UCLH and Mercedes-AMG High Performance Powertrains. The NHS has ordered 10,000 of these but anyone can download the design for free here.
  • Database of Covid-19 technologies put together by the Space Ecologies Art Design collective. You can find everything from ideas for disinfecting protective equipment to a handbook of nursing techniques.
  • Index of 60+ open source projects to fight Covid-19, put together by Luminary Labs. This is one of the most comprehensive lists we've seen.
  • Tom Global: a global network of engineers,  designers and medical professionals who are creating a database of products that can be made quickly to help both hospitals and individuals who are in quarantine. You can find anything from a recipe for hand sanitiser to face protection visors to ventilators. Anyone can upload designs to this.
  • Open Source Ventilator, run by a team based in Ireland
  • A prototype for a simple ventilator that runs of an Arduino circuit board, designed by a team of engineers, clinicians and students at Oxford University and Kings College London.
  • An online hackathon to design an open-source ventilator posted on Hackaday.
  • specifications for a respirator posted by a resident at the Johns Hopkins hospital.
  • plans for a DIY, Arduino-based ventilator posted by a Google researcher on GitHub.
  • Forum A.I.RE: a Spanish language discussion forum for open source ventilator makers, run by Spain's Coronavirus Makers
  • Open Source Covid-19 Medical Supplies: Another Facebook group with a list of instructions for how to make everything from protective masks and gowns to ventilators.
  •  A community mobilising to create emergency ventilators in Finland, led by an employee at Iceye, the satellite monitoring company
  • Covid-19 Makers UK: A UK startup Geomiq is organising a network of UK makers to produce visors and ventilators. They are partnering with Coronavirus Makers Spain, a community of 20,000+ makers who are doing the same in Spain. They are looking for people with 3D printers to help, and also for companies who can donate materials. The Facebook group is here.
  • Hack the Crisis: a global movement of hackathons taking place in various countries around the world.  These are the ones coming up that you can join:

Many of these projects require software and complex electronics, however. OxyGEN’s idea was to keep things as simple as possible and to use items that are easy to obtain. Manual resuscitation devices — often known as Ambu bags — are in plentiful supply, part of the kit for every ambulance and fire crew. Car windscreen motors are available everywhere, and the team felt they would be reliable, given they have had to pass the high certification standards for the car industry.

A windscreen motor is also designed to run at low voltage off a car battery — something that will be important for users in places like India and Africa, where continuous mains electricity might not be guaranteed.

Senior doctors have advised the OxyGEN team on making the machine as safe as possible, including being able to adjust the rate and speed at which the air is pumped in order to avoid injury from overfilling a patient’s lungs. The machine passed an initial medical test on sedated pigs on Monday.

“We don’t have time to get full medical certification,” says Rovira Leranoz. “But all we need is approval from the hospital’s ethics committee that these can be used as a last resort.”