Project Spotlight: VentOS

VentOS seeks to provide a safe and efficient ventilator operating software that is compatible with various types of open-source and commercial ventilators.

Written by: Tif Ho

The Challenge

At the global onset of COVID-19 in March, medical experts predicted that there would be a worldwide  shortage of ventilators throughout the pandemic. This prediction brought on an outpouring of highly-skilled, altruistic volunteers who sought to fulfill the shortage. In a truly global effort, medical specialists, engineers, quality assurance specialists, project managers, manufacturers, and numerous other professionals from around the world came together in order to offer their time, skills, and resources. These generous volunteers self-organized into groups for the sole purpose of producing rapid-build ventilators that could be used to treat and save the lives of COVID-19 patients. The volunteers based their projects on the premise that these ventilators could be designed, manufactured, and distributed at a speed which would quickly meet demand. 

Problematically, as the groups of volunteers began working on ventilator designs, they came across several issues. Firstly, ventilators are complex medical machines. They generally require long build times and high levels of safety assurance. Volunteers could hasten this process by relying on commonly-found, non-proprietary materials and open-source designs. However, their ventilators were still required to undergo an extensive and often lengthy regulatory process

Further complicating the issue was that many of the volunteers were designing ventilators for the first time. The overwhelming amount of information on safety and lack of deep expertise made it difficult to discern accuracy and effectiveness of safety standards.

Secondly, the sheer number of ventilator groups and pressing circumstances raised questions about the uniformity and reliability of a ramped-up regulatory process. Each ventilator group relied on different safety standards and design processes. Further complicating the issue was that many of the volunteers were designing ventilators for the first time. The overwhelming amount of information on safety and lack of deep expertise made it difficult to discern accuracy and effectiveness of safety standards. These concerns tacked more time onto an already difficult regulatory process.

Thirdly, like existing ventilators, the rapid-build designs that volunteers were working on continued to require a skilled operator. However, research reveals that even in well-resourced Intensive Care Units (ICUs), there is a wide variability in ventilator management. Inadequate training and ventilator alarm systems can result in the death of a patient. The potential for these situations increases during a pandemic, when limited resources and the highly-contagious nature of a disease means that ventilators are often monitored by a single operator, without any checks on their processes. This is particularly the case in disadvantaged communities which have few resources, including a limited number of, or inadequately trained, ventilator operators. These factors reveal the need for ventilators to include Clinical Decision Support (CDS), so as to help operators make quick and accurate decisions in emergency situations.

The Solution

Driven by the belief that we can achieve more together, anesthesiologist Dr. Erich Schulz, Dr. Robert L. Read, and Engineer Ben Coombs initiated the VentOS project, supported and encouraged by numerous volunteers in the Helpful Engineering organisation. As many ventilator groups struggled to meet regulatory standards, the VentOS team has prioritised risk management and quality assurance as the foundation of its work.

They felt that they could best support the efforts and increase the possibility of success of these groups by developing frameworks and resources that the various projects could share. In pursuance of this goal, the team decided to design software that would aim to be compatible with multiple types of ventilators.

By bringing together experts from various open-source teams, the project hopes to aid development of robust ventilator software to make ventilation as safe as possible. Ultimately, this could extend to the development of advanced features that would enhance Clinical Support Decision by helping ventilator operators to comply with complex protocols, validate data accuracy, and weigh competing risks for effective decision-making in complex situations.

The mission of VentOS is “To create a free and open-source software library and embedded operating system to enable engineering teams to develop safe and effective invasive and non-invasive ventilators for diverse contexts.” Before initiating Project VentOS, the team reviewed more than 100 open-source ventilator projects. They hope to help these groups “see the most value from the software engineering work already done within these projects.”

helpful-engineering-ventos-system-architecture

Proposed VentOS system architecture.

The VentOS team is working to address multiple challenges, including :

  1. Hardware manufacturers of ventilators want software to work in the best possible way with their hardware’s capabilities, which may include only one of the four different pressure and flow sensors that they recommend as a minimum
  2. System administrators need to be able to preload sensible default values for specific medical settings or contexts
  3. Ventilator operators need to be alerted if the ventilator fails in any way
  4. Ventilator operators need to be able to suspend alarms briefly so that they can think clearly in stressful, emergency situations
  5. Ventilator operators need to know what has triggered an alarm so as to obtain guidance on causes and solutions
  6. Ventilator operators need to be able to finely adjust alarm parameters in order to avoid alarm fatigue
  7. System developers need to be able to access ventilator logs for ongoing system refinement and quality assurance

Planning to work in an agile pattern, they have laid out requirements for a target minimal viable product (MVP). By focusing initially on a relatively simple MVP the team intends to focus the bulk of their efforts in establishing robust software engineering processes. The MVP will include life-saving alarms with settings that range from usual to extreme for:

  • Overpressure
  • Pressure sensor miscalibration
  • Pausing alarm signals for two minutes
  • Disconnection alarm when no no breathing is detected in X seconds

Rendering of initial inspiratory (orange) and expiratory (blue) flow and pressure (green) signals that will act as test cases for complex signal processing algorithms optimised to run on inexpensive low-power microcontroller units. The test here is “Can the algorithm detect that a serious problem has occured at the 50 second point?” Can it do so despite the noise, and only relying on a single sensor?

VentOS is currently in the design phase. The team remains focused on creating high-quality software. They are using both python and C in the project, using the power of Python’s data analysis tools, while developing core C modules to run on microcontrollers. They are currently working  on converting initial experimental algorithms from Python to C. Thus far, both Coombs and Schulz have found that their greatest challenge during the project has been in breaking down the silos between ventilator groups in order to make use of the work that has already been done by these groups. Nonetheless, throughout, the VentOS team has continued to document their processes in order to achieve regulatory compliance so as to provide the best possible support to ventilator groups. Schulz states that ultimately, their goal is to create “verifiable, well-engineered safety-critical software” that can be embedded into various ventilator hardwares and used in diverse medical contexts. “We cannot put a well rested, highly trained medical specialist beside every ventilator in the world, but just maybe we can train the ventilators to fill in at least some of the gaps.”

How You Can Help

VentOS is currently in a pre-concept phase. In order to continue with their work, the team is seeking volunteers for their open roles:

View the full list of roles and descriptions here.

Want to volunteer?

Join the #project-ventos channel in the Helpful Engineering slack. Please include information about your background and how you would like to help.

Want to learn more?

Learn more about this project at https://gitlab.com/project-ventos/ventos

The designs in this article are presented As-Is. The goal is to present designs that can foster further discussion and be utilized in countries that permit this product. These are not finalized designs and do not represent certification from any country. You accept responsibility and release Helpful Engineering from liability for the manufacture or use of this product. This design was created in response to the announcement on March 10, 2020, from the HHS.  Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) who issued a declaration pursuant to the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act

Link to Prep act. :https://www.phe.gov/Preparedness/legal/prepact/Pages/default.aspx

ALL WARRANTIES OF ANY KIND WHATSOEVER, EXPRESS, IMPLIED AND STATUTORY, ARE HEREBY DISCLAIMED. ALL IMPLIED WARRANTIES OF MERCHANTABILITY AND FITNESS FOR A PARTICULAR PURPOSE ARE HEREBY DISCLAIMED. THIS DEVICE (INCLUDING ANY ACCESSORIES AND COMPONENTS) IS PRESENTED ‘AS IS.’

 

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Waste as a Resource: Charting the Journey of Plastic into Roads

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Plastic waste, omnipresent and seemingly immortal, pervades every corner of our planet. Once celebrated as the marvel of modern innovation, it now stands as a monument to our unchecked consumption. However, the tide is turning. From waste emerges an unexpected solution: using plastic waste in road construction.

The basic premise revolves around using plastic waste as a partial substitute for bitumen in roads. But how is this concept fairing on the ground? Let’s delve into five case studies from around the world:

India

Perhaps one of the earliest adopters of this method, India has paved thousands of kilometers of roads using plastic waste. The southern city of Chennai has been at the forefront. Their approach involves shredding the plastic to a specific size before mixing it with bitumen.

Learnings: The roads demonstrate increased resilience, especially during the monsoons. However, the importance of maintaining a consistent plastic size was a significant lesson, ensuring even distribution and longevity.

The Netherlands

This European nation took a modular approach. They introduced plastic road surfaces as pre-fabricated blocks, making installation and maintenance more manageable.

Learnings: The modular nature allows for quicker repair and replacement. Moreover, these blocks, when worn out, can be recycled, further pushing the sustainability envelope.

South Africa

Here, the approach was more community-centric. By involving local communities in plastic collection, not only were roads built, but jobs were also created.

Learnings: Beyond just infrastructure development, the project showcased how environmental solutions could have socio-economic benefits. The community ownership also ensured consistent plastic waste supply and road maintenance.

Australia

Down under, they embarked on a pilot project in Melbourne by using a mix of recycled plastics equivalent to plastics from over 3 million plastic bags, along with glass and toners from used print cartridges.

Learnings: The diversity in the type of plastics used provided a more comprehensive blueprint for cities worldwide. It emphasized the need for rigorous testing to determine the right mix and highlighted the potential to incorporate other recyclable materials.

United Kingdom

The UK’s approach was heavily research-driven. They launched trials in Cumbria to understand the long-term effects of plastic roads.

Learnings: The UK’s focus on research underscored the importance of longitudinal studies. While immediate benefits are evident, understanding the environmental and structural impact over years or decades is crucial for widespread adoption.

While these successes chart a hopeful course, the journey of integrating plastic waste into roads is not without its challenges:

  • Type of Plastic: Not all plastics are suited for road construction. This necessitates thorough segregation and compatibility checks.
  • Environmental Impact: There’s a risk of microplastics being released into the environment as roads wear down.
  • Health Concerns: Toxic fumes released during the melting process could pose health risks to workers and nearby communities.
  • Durability and Performance: The long-term performance of plastic roads in different conditions remains a topic of study.
  • Recycling Limitations: Some plastics lose their structural integrity after being recycled multiple times, impacting road longevity.
  • End-of-Life Management: The disposal of worn-out plastic roads without causing environmental harm is an unresolved challenge.
  • Economic Viability: Balancing the costs of treating and integrating plastic can be a hurdle.
  • Public Perception and Acceptance: Garnering public support and addressing concerns are essential for this initiative’s success.
  • Regulatory and Standards Development: The absence of standardized guidelines can complicate the construction process.
  • Supply Chain Challenges: Ensuring a consistent supply of suitable plastic waste, especially in less urbanized regions, can be challenging.

These examples, spread across different continents, highlight the adaptability and potential of integrating plastic waste into road construction. But it’s more than just a technical solution; it’s a paradigm shift. The message is clear: what we deem ‘waste’ today could be the ‘resource’ of tomorrow.

Each case study, with its unique approach and lessons, illustrates the significance of context. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but the underlying theme remains consistent — innovation, adaptability, and sustainability are key.

As we reflect on these global efforts, it becomes evident that the journey of plastic waste from being discarded to paving our roads is a testament to human ingenuity and resilience. Through these case studies, we discover myriad ways to reimagine waste, reshape infrastructure, and redefine the future. It’s a potent reminder that innovation emerges from challenges, and with commitment and vision, the path to change is always within reach.


Waste as a Resource: Charting the Journey of Plastic into Roads was originally published in Helpful Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Akon: An Odyssey of Light and Empowerment

Photo by Andreas Gücklhorn on Unsplash

Akon and Andy Rabens Pose For Photos with Entrepreneurs

In the sprawling expanses of Africa, as twilight descends, a new beacon of hope emerges. Not from global energy moguls or international benefactors, but from the pulsating world of music. At the helm? Akon. Once a maestro of chart-topping hits, he’s now orchestrating a different kind of rhythm: a rhythm of transformation.

Much of Africa’s tale has been shadowed by the absence of dependable electricity. Remote hamlets plunged into twilight, their only respite being the toxic fumes of kerosene lamps. But with Senegalese roots grounding him, Akon envisioned a brighter narrative.

Solar Embrace

Treading into the vast potential of the continent, Akon’s endeavor was nothing short of audacious. His ‘Akon Lighting Africa’ initiative, set in motion in 2014, sought to electrify remote corners across 25 nations. Aiming to impact a staggering 600 million lives, it was a symphony of ambition and altruism.

Central to this narrative was the sun. Africa, eternally kissed by sunlight, had its potent energy often overlooked. Akon and his team sought to capture this perennial force. Solar panels, once mere passive structures, were transformed into catalysts for change.

They bypassed the need for expansive infrastructures typically associated with traditional power. By decentralizing energy, Akon’s approach empowered communities at a granular level. Each village, each home, could become a fortress of self-reliance. This isn’t just electrification; it’s emancipation.

Empowering the Grassroots

A critical facet of Akon’s strategy was its deep-rooted commitment to nurturing local talent. This wasn’t a superficial transplantation of Western technology. Instead, a robust drive was undertaken to train local engineers and budding entrepreneurs.

By 2021, a formidable 5,000 individuals had been molded, ensuring that the projects didn’t just illuminate, but also invigorated. A local with the expertise to manage these solar setups ensured continuity. This wasn’t mere infrastructural deployment; it was the birth of an entirely new vocational realm. Here was a circular philosophy at play: knowledge and skills didn’t just arrive; they stayed, grew, and prospered.

A Financial Masterstroke

Financing such an ambitious venture was no small feat. Traditional models, often myopic in their vision, failed to grasp the intricacies of rural African electrification. But Akon and his team sketched a different blueprint.

With a deft mix of public and private alliances, they channeled investments from entities passionate about genuine societal impact. This wasn’t just about monetary gains; it was about dividends in human progress. The strategy cultivated sustainable growth without saddling nations with crushing debt.

In Akon’s journey, we glimpse more than just benevolence. It’s a masterclass in synergy, in uniting profit with purpose, leveraging sustainable avenues, and bestowing power upon local communities. It’s a circular dance of progress where every step forward is a leap for an entire community.

From the rhythm of his melodies, Akon once moved the world. Today, through the hum of countless electrified villages, he’s rewiring the continent’s future. One panel, one village, one heartbeat at a time.

The Lighthouse Effect and Africa’s Renaissance

Akon’s ambitious endeavor to illuminate the heart of Africa wasn’t just a testament to his commitment to his roots, but it became a beacon for many African celebrities and influencers who had made their name on international shores.

His journey began a ripple effect, sparking a reverse brain drain and an emergent African identity that champions global knowledge but with deeply rooted African solutions.

The Reverse Brain Drain

Historically, many of Africa’s best and brightest pursued opportunities abroad due to limited resources and infrastructural challenges at home. This led to a “brain drain,” where talent flocked to Western countries. However, Akon’s investment in Africa’s potential has ignited a trend that defies this narrative.

Returning Talent

Following Akon’s steps, several prominent personalities like Didier Drogba, the famed Ivorian footballer, established charitable foundations. Drogba’s foundation, in particular, has been involved in various health and education initiatives in Côte d’Ivoire. The success stories of these initiatives began attracting Africans abroad to consider returning home, leveraging their global experiences and network to make a difference.

Skills and Expertise

The returnees brought more than just capital. They brought with them skills, experiences, and insights from some of the world’s best institutions and companies. They began setting up enterprises, tech hubs, and initiatives in fields ranging from renewable energy to digital innovation and education.

Collaborative Initiatives

Akon’s venture prompted collaboration. Nigerian actress Genevieve Nnaji, for instance, used her platform to emphasize the importance of education and has actively participated in projects aimed at building schools in rural regions. Her collaboration with other returnees and foreign institutions is a testament to the synergies now taking root in Africa.

Crafting a New African Identity

Akon’s initiative has not only been about electrifying homes but also about reigniting pride in African identity.

Homegrown Solutions

This renewed identity champions the philosophy of “For Africa, By Africa.” Instead of wholly importing foreign solutions, there’s a significant emphasis on tailoring interventions to the unique challenges and strengths of African societies.

Cultural Renaissance

Alongside infrastructural developments, there’s been a palpable rejuvenation of African arts, music, literature, and cinema. Stars like Lupita Nyong’o and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are leveraging their global platforms to bring attention back to Africa, advocating for an appreciation of its rich traditions and potential.

Economic Paradigms

Africa is now being seen not just as a beneficiary of aid but as an equal partner in global economic dynamics. Akon’s foray into cryptocurrency with the launch of “Akoin” in Senegal is a prime example. This venture further emphasizes his vision of an economically self-reliant Africa, leveraging modern technological tools.

In essence, Akon’s electrification project has been much more than a philanthropic endeavor. It has lit the way for a generation of African influencers, beckoning them back to their roots, not out of obligation but opportunity.

With every village that lights up, it’s not just the darkness that’s kept at bay but also the shadows of outdated narratives. Akon and his league of influencers are championing a new story for Africa, one that blends its rich legacy with a luminous vision for the future.


Akon: An Odyssey of Light and Empowerment was originally published in Helpful Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Scaling the Skies: Navigating the Highs and Lows of Urban Vertical Farming

Photo by Nadine Primeau on Unsplash

In the heart of bustling cities with desert horizons, where skyscrapers cast long shadows and space is a premium, a new silhouette is emerging — vertical farms. These towering havens of greenery promise fresh produce even in the densest urban centers. Yet, with their rise come challenges: space constraints, soaring energy demands, hefty initial investments, and intricate upkeep. However, as innovators are proving, every problem has a solution. Let’s traverse the stacked aisles of urban vertical farming.

Tilling the Concrete Jungle

The dream is seductive: converting urban spaces into productivity hubs, reducing food miles, and offering city dwellers a literal taste of the farm. However, dreams often grapple with reality:

Space Constraints: While vertical farming minimizes horizontal space use, urban centers, especially in desert countries, offer limited space due to high property values.

Energy Appetite: Traditional farming thrives on sunlight. Vertical farms, however, often rely heavily on energy-intensive artificial lighting, especially in regions with prolonged hot and sun-scarce periods.

Capital Challenges: Setting up a vertical farm isn’t cheap. From specialized lighting to hydroponic systems, the initial costs can be daunting.

Maintenance Maze: These farms aren’t just about sowing and reaping; they’re complex systems requiring consistent monitoring and adjustments.

Innovating Upwards: Modular & Energy-Efficient Solutions

What if the challenges of space and energy could be turned into strengths?

Modular Systems: Think of them as Lego blocks for farmers. Customizable, expandable, and versatile, they can be fitted into various urban spaces, from rooftops to balconies to abandoned warehouses.

Tapping Renewable Energy: Solar panels or wind turbines can be integrated to harness natural energy. In sun-rich desert countries, this could counterbalance energy consumption.

Optimized Lighting: Advanced LED lights, tailored to emit specific wavelengths, can promote faster plant growth with less energy.

Smart Systems: Automated sensors and AI-driven analytics can reduce the need for constant human monitoring, optimizing conditions for plant growth while conserving resources.

Case Study: The Oasis Towers of Dubai

Dubai, with its sprawling skyscrapers and desert backdrop, epitomizes space and environmental challenges. Enter the Oasis Towers: a series of vertical farms powered entirely by solar panels, taking modularity to new heights. Designed as self-sufficient units, each module can be tailored to specific crops. The result? A 70% reduction in water usage and a significant drop in energy costs, producing yields comparable to larger traditional farms.

Cost-Effective and User-Friendly: Democratizing Vertical Farming

High-tech farming solutions can seem out of reach for small-scale urban farmers and community gardens. Yet, the future holds promise:

Shared Farming Spaces: Think co-working spaces, but for farmers. Shared facilities can spread out the costs, making the technology accessible to many.

Training and Support: Local governments and NGOs can offer training sessions, ensuring farmers reap the most from these systems.

Local Manufacturing: Producing components locally, especially in warm or desert countries, can reduce costs.

Simplified Systems for Community Gardens: Stripping down advanced systems to their essentials can provide community gardens with affordable vertical farming solutions.

Case Study: Lima’s Urban Green Revolution

Lima, with its warm climate, has seen community gardens sprout throughout the city. Faced with space constraints, locals innovated with cost-effective vertical solutions. Using locally sourced materials, combined with basic hydroponic systems and shared LED setups, yields have flourished. These community-driven initiatives not only feed neighbourhoods but also foster community ties and engagement.

Conclusion

Vertical farming, with its verdant towers and digital dashboards, offers more than just fresh produce; it paints a vision of a sustainable, resilient urban future. Warm and desert countries, often at the frontlines of climate change, stand to gain immensely from this agricultural renaissance.

Yet, the transition demands more than just technology; it requires a blend of innovation, community engagement, and a dash of audacity. As city skylines evolve, integrating green into the gray, vertical farming stands not as a mere trend but as a testament to human ingenuity in the face of challenges. From Lima’s community gardens to Dubai’s Oasis Towers, the future of farming is not just on the horizon, but reaching for the skies.


Scaling the Skies: Navigating the Highs and Lows of Urban Vertical Farming was originally published in Helpful Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.