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High school robotics team creates portable ventilator

The Wolcott College Prep students used their competition experience to design the medical device.

The TETRIX Portable Ventilator only took two to three hours to make with recycled robotics equipment.
A group of Wolcott College Prep students recycled robotics equipment to make the TETRIX Portable Ventilator.
Kenny Bae

A high school robotics team hopes to provide ventilators to those in need amid the coronavirus pandemic while inspiring younger generations to tackle current issues.

The Bionic Wolves of Wolcott College Prep, 524 N. Wolcott St., is seeking clinical trials and FDA approval for its TETRIX Portable Ventilator, which only took two to three hours to make.

Bionic Wolves coach and physics teacher Kenny Bae said his team used recycled materials to create innovative devices in robotics competitions. The idea for the device was sparked by his students’ competition experiences and a global need for ventilators to aid the recovery of coronavirus patients, Bae said.

“As we’ve seen, there’s a huge demand for ventilators, not just in the U.S. but all over the world,” Bae said. “What if we could create a portable ventilator using the equipment we already have? That is the question we started with, and that’s what we’ve been working on from spring break until now.”

The ventilator was made with used cables, two iPhones, hand tools, a hardware controller and a battery pack. The device can stay on for five hours straight.

“Right now, we’re trying to make sure that this product is viable by working with health care workers to get feedback about it’s practical use in a hospital setting,” Bae said. “And once that process works out, we have to get clinical testing.”

Neonatologist Olivia Kim advised Kenny about how ventilators are conventionally managed, so he and his team could replicate those standards. They also discussed features that would ensure a patient’s safety.

“With the unpredictability of the pandemic and seeing how it has ravaged Italy and New York, thinking outside of the box and being proactive is what can save lives,” said Kim, who works at Northwestern Medicine’s Huntley and McHenry hospitals.

The portable ventilator could come in handy for a patient experiencing respiratory failure who didn’t have access to a standard ventilator, she said.

“In this instance, and without [the team’s] ventilator, a nurse or respiratory therapist would need to stay with the one patient and hand ventilate him/her until a ventilator can be found or until another person can come and relieve them,” Kim said. “[The team’s] ventilator could fill the gap and help the patient breathe, as well as free the nurse or RT to perform their many other duties, until a conventional ventilator becomes available.”

Kenny and his team are on the right track with the device, Kim said.

Bae’s robotics team is part of For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology, an international STEM mentorship program founded by inventor Dean Kamen, who Bae said supports the team’s work on the device. FIRST holds annual competitions where students design, build, program and operate robots.

Wolcott sophomore Lionel Billingsley worked on a 3D model of the ventilator.

Lionel’s 3D Image model
Provided by Lionel Billingsley

“[Modeling] allows you to see potential issues before you actually spend a bunch of time building an actual, working prototype,” Billingsley said. “You may find a significant issue in the design that you can then go and change more quickly.”

Though the team isn’t able to work in the same space due to social distancing measures, sophomore Bethany Blackman sets up calls on Google Meet to discuss how to improve the ventilator. She said their work is important to her because she wants to inspire younger generations.

“You wouldn’t think that high school students would do something like this, especially with what’s going on, but we’ve managed to get through it,” Bethany said. “And it also shows that anyone can do something if they put their mind to it.”

Bae said the next steps for the ventilator are to keep testing it.

“We want to eventually partner with a biotech company to conduct more clinical testing and then ultimately get FDA emergency approval,” he said.