A new episode of our Here's an Idea podcast explored a variety of robots (and robotic technologies) that doctors and nurses are putting to work in the fight against COVID-19.

One system showcased in the episode offered remote-control of a ventilator so that hospital workers could perform air adjustments without having to put on and take off their personal protective equipment. In just a few months, Johns Hopkins University engineers built the robotic system.

Here's how it works:

A robotic device is fixed to the ventilator screen, and a horizontal bar is placed on the top edge (as seen in the above image). The bar acts as a kind of back-and-forth station track for a stylus, held with two thin vertical bars. The finger-like stylus can be commanded and steered remotely — almost like an Etch A Sketch, said JHU researcher Prof. Russell Taylor in our episode.

A camera connected to the top bar sends an image of the screen to the operator's tablet. The operator's choices on the tablet initiate a corresponding reaction from the robot.

"So basically you're giving the ICU person a very long arm," said Taylor.


Along with Prof. Taylor, additional researchers on the project included mechanical engineering professor Dr. Axel Krieger, who joined Johns Hopkins on July 1 and Misha Khrenov, a student at the University of Maryland.

Dr. Axel Krieger led the development of the physical robot prototype and conducted the testing.

In a short Q&A with Tech Briefs below, Dr. Krieger explains more about the challenge of getting a long robotic arm just right.

What has the response been like from doctors, nurses, and patients?

Dr. Krieger: The responses from healthcare workers have been overwhelmingly positive. If you watch how difficult it is to don and doff PPE, it is clear to see how much easier it is to hit a button on a remote screen than go into an ICU bay for making a small setting change on a ventilator.

Did you bring the system to an actual hospital yet for a test? When do you think this will this be used in a hospital?

Dr. Krieger: We brought the system to the JHU hospital biocontainment unit and tested the system with respiratory therapists. Since the robot is still a prototype and not yet approved for clinical use, we have not yet tested it with patients. Timing depends on availability for funding to build a clinical grade robot.

Jonathan Cope and Mechanical Engineering Professor Axel Krieger work in the Johns Hopkins Hospital Bio-Containment Unit to test a robot that adjusts ventilator settings while being controlled via a tablet from outside the patient’s room in order to avoid unnecessary patient contact. (Photo:Will Kirk/Johns Hopkins University)

What was the biggest engineering challenge for you?

Dr. Krieger: The biggest engineering challenge has been, surprisingly, to generate a consistent finger response on the capacitive touchscreens. But we finally figured it out, using trial and error with different tip designs.

How has COVID-19 changed the way you design and test products, if it at all?

Dr. Krieger: COVID-19 definitely changed the way we designed the robot, since we had everyone working on this remotely. We drove the robot to each other to work on different parts and perform testing.

What do you think? Share your questions and comments below.