COVID-19 leads to memorable final project: adapting sleep apnea machines into ventilators

By Alex Parrish

virginia techSenior mechanical engineering major Brent Bailey was on the final stretch toward graduation, counting down the days until he donned a cap and gown and framed his freshly minted Virginia Tech degree.

His final semester included four classes and he already had a job in Alabama.

As COVID-19 spread across the globe, Bailey watched the reports from his family home in Clifton, Virginia. Spring break was lengthened by a week, and then the bigger picture quickly became clear: this pandemic was going to significantly disrupt his senior year. Eventually, it prevented him from returning to campus.

One of his first thoughts was of his senior project. Bailey and a group of his peers had been working on a robotic hand that could be used in an industrial setting. They were still finalizing their design, heading into final presentation, when they found out that senior design would be canceled. Group projects like theirs were dependent on being in close proximity and working together, something that was no longer possible during coronavirus safety measures.

“My first reaction was that I was really bummed,” said Bailey. “I kind of moped around for a few days. I was pretty disappointed.”

A week after the senior design project was canceled, a new project surfaced. While surfing through announcements for his artificial intelligence class, Bailey happened across a post about a project from Al Wicks, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Partnering with Assistant Professor Joseph Meadows, Wicks was inviting students to work on a project that brought together multiple departments to create a way to adapt sleep apnea machines into ventilators, addressing the worldwide shortage of critical devices to assist with breathing.

Bailey recognized the potential to take an active part in this historic moment.

“I thought, if I do this, I can tell my kids that I worked in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic,” Bailey said.

The senior joined a team with several other students to develop a microcontroller that interpreted flow meter data for the converted machine, allowing for real-time measurements of air flow rates. Bailey wrote code and worked with fellow seniors Jonathan Guevarez and Connor Herron on integration and testing. Processing the data from the sensor into meaningful flow rates and inhale/exhale volumes was the role of Forest Terwilliger and Cole Berger, while Rohan Walia and Austin Guevara focused their efforts on the user interface that reported the machine’s status. Cody Dowd, a graduate student working in Meadows’ lab, was the lone contributor located in the Blacksburg lab for final assembly.

The project was notable not only for its response to this moment in history; it also provided an opportunity for real application of classroom knowledge for Bailey. He believes that the bare metal microcontroller programming skills that everyone on the team used to build this device is a skill that will be very valuable at the company for which he will work.

“This work felt meaningful, because I knew I was working on something that would help people in this time of need.” Bailey said. “This project reminded me of the purpose of my God-given talents – to show love to hurting people, and in this case it was making technologies that help people. This realization gave me new motivation and drove my productivity across all areas.”


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