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During the spread of the coronavirus epidemic in Italy, when there was a serious lack of ventilators, the Government’s “Slovenian Ventilator” initiative was joined by the UL Faculty of Electrical Engineering. Through exemplary collaboration with students, companies and experts from other institutions, a working prototype of a medical ventilator, called the “FEspirator”, was developed in record time.
At the University of Ljubljana Faculty of Electrical Engineering, on the initiative of Prof. Dr Marko Topič, head of the Electronics Department and the Laboratory of Photovoltaics and Optoelecronics (LPVO), in the final days of March 2020 a team was formed from staff at the Electronics Department and Mechatronics Department with the aim of developing the simplest ventilator possible, in collaboration with the Ljubljana University Medical Centre. Assoc. Prof. Dr Marko Jankovec, head of development for the “FEspirator”, included in the team his students, and with extraordinary speed they in turn teamed up with numerous Slovenian companies.
“We were aware of the risks and dangers of the epidemic, which was in an exponential stage of growth. The need for medical ventilators could have run into the thousands, which Slovenia did not have. We mapped out an investigative study practically in one day. Given the available time, which we estimated at a maximum of one month, and constraints on getting equipment delivered, we decided to use equipment already in Slovenia. Our concept was based on the use of BVM manual ventilators, which hospitals and health centres have in stock. We can develop the electronics, controls and sensors and add control, but without medical support, including technical support, it would not have been possible!” said Prof. Topič, describing the first few days. The development team also included Dr Bojan Kontestabil, specialist in anaesthesiology and reanimatology at the University Medical Centre Ljubljana, which served to enhance the team with medical skills and user needs from practical experience.
Also contributing to the FEspirator were partners from various Slovenian and foreign companies, headed by the ZAXCSS company. They helped source the necessary materials and put together the mechanical part of the ventilator, with Igor Stražišnik and Aljaž Žavrlan handling the overall production of the mechanical part of the device. Development of the FEspirator involved the participation of 7 associates from the LPVO and 6 electrical engineering students, with a total of more than 30 people putting in over 1,000 hours on this work.
“From 25 March to the first test, which was conducted at the University Medical Centre Ljubljana on 10 April, the Faculty of Electrical Engineering team worked literally day and night, without a break, on developing the medical ventilator. Most of the team worked from home, but when needed they came to the faculty, while I myself was at the faculty every day, putting together and testing the device, and sending various parts by post to colleagues so they could work on development at home. Some worked late into the night, others then continued the work very early in the morning through to the evening, and in this way they switched out so we worked practically 24/7. The team was truly in lockstep and showed team spirit and drive, and without that and the appropriate knowledge and external partners we could not have developed the appropriate prototype. We were driven on the whole time by the thought that if we can save one life, all our work will have been worth it,” said Assoc. Prof. Dr Jankovec about the development of a working prototype of the medical ventilator.
After the second test of the already perfected FEspirator prototype at Ljubljana University Medical Centre (UMC) on 24 April 2020, the head of the UMC Expert Committee, Asst. Prof. Dr Tomislav Mirković, M.D. assessed the FEspirator as follows: “The concept of the mechanical ventilator at first generated doubts because of its simplicity, but the development team from the Faculty of Electrical Engineering and its partners created a successful prototype in one month. I am inspired by the commitment of everyone who took part and by this successful development in such a short time. The FEspirator fully met all the test criteria and demonstrates practically all the functionalities of professional ventilators. I could not imagine that you could take a respiratory balloon – which is the heart of this ventilator – and make a ventilator that attains roughly all the functionalities of professional ventilators. If I was grading it with points from 1 to 10, the FEspirator definitely scores 11.”
The FEspirator is a prime example of cooperation between the academic and business spheres, and also between different institutions. Everyone that participated showed that through collaboration it is possible to achieve even better and faster results, to arrive at common advances or even to help in crisis situations, where there is a need to save lives.
The developed FEspirator prototype is distinguished by innovative solutions and advanced algorithms for numerous functionalities typical of professional medical ventilators. These include rapid and precise pressure regulation, automatic sensing of breathing and multi-stage alarms. In this way the device exceeds the threshold of being a breathing aid and comes close to professional ventilators. The device is therefore ready now to start saving lives.