Ingenuity Labs researcher takes a ‘maker-style’ approach to the COVID-19 pandemic

Posted on July 20, 2020

Dr. Amy Wu has a passion for creating accessible assistive technologies that are impactful, yet easy to reproduce with common tools and technology. So when COVID-19 hit, she decided to apply her knowledge to this new challenge, and was recently one of 13 researchers to receive ‘rapid response’ funding from Queen’s to design and test low-cost, medical grade face shields that can be easily produced using resources within the community.

“I like to start with simple, and build from there,” says Dr. Wu. “It’s a ‘maker-style’ approach that I use with my students as we build robots to assist humans.” Dr. Wu’s Biomechanics x Robotics Laboratory is at the intersection of human biomechanics and robotics, with a goal to build better assistive technologies by understanding the mechanics and energetics of human movement and applying those to robots, while using robotic technology to better understand human behaviour and movement.

The lab uses rapid prototyping technology such as laser cutters and 3-D printers, and when a call went out from 3D PPE Kingston, a volunteer initiative run by Queen’s medical students, to use 3-D printers to create personal protective equipment for frontline health care workers, she and her team got involved. Working with a team of students, faculty and members of the community, they used their lab equipment to support the cause. One obstacle, however, to furthering the cause was the lack of certification for these community-made shields.

Wu is now funded by the Queen’s SARS CoV-2/COVID-19 Rapid Response funding program, which was developed to support research projects that will contribute to urgent efforts to accelerate the development, testing and implementation of medical or social countermeasures to mitigate the rapid spread of the virus. Along with co-investigator Dr. Hailey Hobbs, a Queen’s physician who is leading the 3D PPE Kingston team, Wu’s team has been evaluating several different face shield designs to determine which would be the most effective and efficient for rapid production, with a goal to have a workable design by the end of the summer. At the same time, her team is seeking the tests and certifications needed to distribute the face shields.

“We want to be sure that any design, whether it’s an existing one or a new design that we create, is easy to produce by our community and cost-effective,” she says. “That means it should be simple with not too many moving parts.” She notes that, like her human movement and mobility research, the face shield will need to be designed with materials that are optimized for fit and use, especially as health care workers will wear them for long periods of time. They must also be easy to sanitize.

The final design will be rigourously tested before becoming available for anyone to download and produce. “Tools such as 3D printers and laser cutters are becoming more common and more cost-effective,” says Wu. “By making the design open-source, we can quickly mobilize communities to use these tools to support our front-line workers.”

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