VITAL: NASA’s fan for Covid-19


The Covid-19 pandemic sparked the ingenuity of many people and businesses. We have seen, especially in Italy, high fashion companies convert into the production of PPE, Ferrari develops the pulmonary ventilator and then the do-it-yourself ventilators with Arduino and Raspberry and the oximeter built by the doctors of Triuggio. In the last month VITAL was born, the project with which NASA has decided to try their hand at producing fans for the Covid-19 pandemic.

On April 30, the Food and Drug Administration approved VITAL, the fan built in just 37 days by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory of NASA to deal with the Covid-19 emergency. VITAL is a locally accessible ventilator intervention technology and will not replace professional ventilators in hospitals. In fact, the fan is made up of fewer parts and is estimated to have a life cycle of 3-4 months. The license to build it is free and manufacturers will be announced by the end of May.

VITAL is born

VITAL was born on a seemingly typical morning in NASA’s labs while two engineers, David Van Buren and Rob Manning, were having coffee. The United States of America was starting to go into the pandemic and the two engineers had examined the forecast of the infections, they knew how dangerous the pandemic was. They felt compelled to do something, to help the world.

Theirs a team of 50 engineers used to develop space technologies but in that period the world needed fans. Nobody had knowledge of medicine and physiology but thanks to a short course by engineer Leon Alkalai on medical engineering, the team not only had the necessary medical knowledge but managed to relate it to the mechanics and electronics for the construction of the fan. At the beginning of the pandemic around the world there was a strong shortage of lung fans and a high cost to buy them even in small hospitals.

This fan is one of countless examples of how taxpayers’ investments in space exploration – the skills, competences and knowledge gathered in decades of crossing borders and achieving records for humanity – translate into progress that improves life on Earth

Jim Bridenstine – NASA administrator

VITAL production

So in just 37 days a team of engineers accustomed to developing robots for space, developed a ventilator capable of helping serious patients with Covid-19 at a sustainable cost. The construction was not easy at all, both because part of the team had to work from home, and for long working hours (14 hours a day for 7 days).

The JPL team managed to build two prototypes: one powered by a blower and the other powered by a pneumatic system. Both contain about a seventh of the parts of a traditional ventilator and both can deliver the high pressure oxygen flows needed for Covid-19 patients by keeping the lungs slightly swollen even as they exhale. This allows the fan to be built with easily available materials at a low cost, its production will not affect the production of professional fans. It also has a flexible design able to adapt it to field hospitals, hotels and other emergency facilities for Covid-19.

VITAL functionality table

On April 22, the ventilator had passed all critical laboratory tests at the Mount Sinai Icahn School of Medicine in New York. On April 25, VITAL, NASA’s fan for Covid-19, was introduced to President Trump and in a few days it was successful all over the world. On April 30, the FDA approved VITAL as an emergency fan.

Test phase in New York

Caltech’s Technology Transfer and Corporate Partnership Office, which manages JPL for NASA, offers a free license for VITAL and addresses the commercial medical sector to find manufacturers for the device.

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