UMass Amherst Electrical and Computer Engineers Help Baystate Health Upgrade Control Cables and Power Systems for Ventilators

Longer control cables and elimination of batteries were needed changes
Shira Epstein testing the new cable at Baystate Health.  (Photo courtesy of IALS)
Shira Epstein testing the new cable at Baystate Health. (Photo courtesy of IALS)

AMHERST, Mass. – Engineers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst responded to a request for help in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic from Baystate Health in Springfield by designing new, longer control cables for ventilators and the elimination of battery power sources. The design changes, developed by a team of electrical and computer engineers, allow medical personnel to control the ventilators at a distance and without using personal protection equipment (PPE), and they provide a more reliable source of power.

The UMass Amherst team is made up of Christopher V. Hollot, professor and department head at the department of electrical and computer engineering (ECE); Baird Soules, a senior lecturer and Shira Epstein, a lecturer, both at ECE. Other contributing members are ECE alumnus Tom Kopec; Jeremy Paradie, an undergraduate; Scott Glorioso, president of The Battery Eliminator Store and son of former UMass ECE professor Robert Glorioso; and Chris Denney, CTO at Worthington Assembly in South Deerfield, Mass.

Hollot says these two projects really were a team effort. This engineering response spanned the greater UMass family including alumni, undergraduate, the makerspace community, local industry and faculty.”

Baystate Health’s resident physician Mat Goebel initially contacted the electrical and computer engineering department (ECE) to fabricate a 25-foot control cable for their ventilators. The existing cable length is less than 10 feet. The engineers determined that longer cables did not exist and that the original shorter cables are extremely backordered. They also found that a key part of the design, the connectors, is proprietary.

They modified an old control cable from Baystate to analyze the signaling and determined that a longer cable was theoretically viable. The team then fabricated a 50-foot cable that was successfully tested on one of Baystate’s ventilators for empirical validation.

The team then tracked down the control cable manufacturer, Amphenol Sine Systems. At the request of the UMass Amherst researchers, the company agreed to design and fabricate these longer control cables. Baystate is now ordering the longer cables directly from the manufacturer.

Goebel and Kyle Walsh, respiratory specialist in clinical engineering from Baystate Health, also requested a design to allow their portable ventilators to run on ordinary electrical power from a wall socket. The portable ventilators are designed to run on two D batteries with a lifespan of 48 hours. In a clinical setting, a wall-power solution removes the need for checking and replacing batteries every two days.

The UMass team solved the problem using a commercial off-the-shelf battery eliminator. They ordered a suitable battery eliminator and successfully tested it on a portable ventilator at Baystate. Subsequently, Baystate ordered 50 of these power supplies directly from The Battery Eliminator Store.

Epstein, who is the director of campus makerspaces, was the liaison with Baystate Health. She fabricated and tested the control cable, and was pivotal in discovering, locating and communicating with the manufacturer. “In more familiar contexts, we consider splicing a cable fairly straightforward. But in a situation like this everything takes on a new level of importance. It demands a greater attention to detail; instead of double-checking, one checks 10 times over, or more. To do this, we had a team of experts lending their eyes via telepresence and guiding the work round the clock. I'm grateful for the opportunity to learn from and work with these experts, and I am looking forward to a future time when we can work together on more lighthearted projects.”

Kopec’s consulting expertise was crucial in solving numerous industrial electronics problems, team members say.

The ECE makerspace (M5), created by Baird Soules, played a crucial role in resourcing this effort. He was the prime mover in the battery-eliminator solution. “The UMass Amherst engineering team came together quite quickly. We worked together for 10 days, via Slack, to clarify the problems, work on possible solutions and finally close in on two designs,” he says.

He praised the other team members and noted that it was completely unexpected that the son of a retired ECE professor would be the one to supply the battery eliminator.