Innovation in the face of COVID-19

A female engineer works in a laboratory

26 March 2020


In just the first three months of 2020, the world has seen an almost unprecedented level of change. Whether it’s the commute to work, a trip to the local café, or just buying food and seeing loved ones, the way we manoeuvre our daily routine is under constant flux.

But in this time of uncertainty and stress, it’s important to remember that there is still a lot of good occurring. People are volunteering to help our healthcare services, manufacturing companies are shifting their production lines to better help out those in need, and crowdsourcing just produced the world’s most powerful computer to research the virus.

There's a lot of positive action in the wake of COVID-19, so we’ve rounded up a handful of examples of people helping others using, or thanks to, engineering.

People around the world have created the most powerful computer in history to research the virus

Folding@home is an international computing project that brings together citizen scientists from around the world to collectively research dynamics of various proteins, often those making up viruses and diseases. The project functions through crowdsourcing – volunteers share the spare computing power on their personal computers to create massive collective processing power.

The project’s normal pursuits are things like cancer, Alzheimer's, and Parkinson's research but, in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have teamed up with citizen researchers around the world to speed up the research into and development of new life-saving therapies. And people have been downloading in droves.

A truly global effort, Folding@home recently announced that enough people had signed up their devices that the project crossed the exaFLOP barrier. For reference, that's 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 (a billion billion) operations per second. The theoretical 1.5 exaFLOPs that the project can now reach is over 7 times faster than the world’s fastest supercomputer – the IBM Summit.

To read the full story, click here.

A New York couple is using their 3D printing company to produce hundreds of visors for testing site workers

Isaac Budmen and Stephanie Keefe, a couple living near New York, have temporarily repurposed their 3D-printing company to produce face shields (visors) to be used by those working at COVID-19 test sites.

A piece of polyethene (plastic) sheeting attaches to the visor and acts to protect healthcare workers as they test patients. The sheeting is replaceable and can be sanitised between uses to reduce waste.

“It just sort of felt right to us to do what we could to help the situation,” Budmen told

To read the full story, click here.

Protofy makes an open-source device to turn windscreen wiper motor into an emergency ventilator

Another fantastic idea comes from Spanish innovators at Protofy, who are working to ease the current shortage of ventilators with their open-source OxyGEN device. OxyGEN uses the motor inside a car’s windscreen-wiper to turn a manual resuscitation bag, a common component every ambulance and fire crew’s kit, into automated breathing aid.

According to Protofy, one of the key considerations when making this was simplicity – it’s possible for an untrained person to make the machine in just four hours using easily accessible materials such as wood, acrylic, or aluminium.

“You don’t need special tools. All you need is a saw,” says Lluís Rovira Leranoz, one of the project leads told

The device has been designed as a stop-gap measure to help until the production of more advanced ventilators can be accelerated by repurposing car manufacturing lines. The company has made the blueprint free to download, which you can access here.

To read the full story, click here.

Robots are being programmed to test patients

Engineers at Tsinghua University in China have developed a robot that allows healthcare workers to stay at a safe distance from Covid-19 patients by treating and testing through remote operation.

The robot is effectively an arm on wheels with a built-in camera. As well as performing ultrasounds, it can take mouth swabs and listen to sounds made by a patient’s organs. Medical staff can perform all of these tasks safety in a separate room. They can even do it from another city over Wi-Fi.

"Doctors are all very brave," Professor Zheng Gangtie, the robot's chief designer, told Reuters.

"But this virus is just too contagious ... We can use robots to perform the most dangerous tasks."

Professor Zheng, who works in the Department of Aeronautics & Astronautics Engineering at the university, got the idea just after Wuhan went into lockdown. Dong Jiahong, a friend of Zheng’s and executive president at Beijing’s Tsinghua Changgung Hospital, explained that the biggest problem is medical practitioners getting sick from the patients they try to treat.

To read the full story, click here.

Hands-free 3D-printed door opener design files made freely available

Materialise, a manufacturing company headquartered in Belgium, has developed a hands-free door opener that can be 3D printed and assembled easily. They have made the design files freely available on their website, which you can download here.

Once again, a key consideration here is simplicity. Once the two components have been 3D printed, the only step required is to fasten them together, with screws, over any door handles in the building.

According to Materialise, “door handles are among the most germ-infested objects in houses, hospitals, factories, and elderly homes.” Similar to advise about coughing and sneezing into your elbow, using a covered arm instead of bare hands to open doors can help to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

To read the full story, click here.

Virustatic germ-trapping snood

In the UK, Manchester biochemists and Manchester University’s newly developed Virustatic Shield is a snood with the technology to trap germs and help stop the spread of viruses. By applying the new antiviral fabric coating to a light snood, the result can trap 96% of viruses transmitted through the air.

Inventor Paul Hope, from Marple, was “concerned that the biggest provider of viruses, the people you are treating, can’t wear existing masks. Issues with breathability mean you can’t put a mask on them. If they could, that would reduce the virus within the hospital environment.”

Unlike ordinary masks, the shield is comfortable to wear even after hours of use. It is washable, reusable, and, because of the antiviral coating: “harmless to touch after being exposed to germs.” So far, testing has shown that the shield is effective against COVID-19 as well as the flu, SARS, MERS, and the common cold.'

To read the full story, click here.

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