If nothing else, the COVID-19 crisis has proven our ability to innovate: Manufacturers are upcycling everything from car parts and vacuum cleaners to PC building tech and now $5 computers in an effort to produce more life-saving medical equipment.
The Raspberry Pi Foundation has reportedly increased production of its single-board Raspberry Pi Zero for use in hospital respirators, according to Tom’s Hardware. Thanks to its “build to stock” attitude, the charity often has products on-hand, or in the pipeline with short lead times.
But high customer demand (for remote learning, telecommuting, and at-home maker projects), plus the organization’s own ventilator reserve, has left them with a shortage of units. Moving forward, the foundation plans to up its quarterly production from 192,000 Zero-line (Pi Zero and Zero W) products to 250,000.
“One of the main challenges with rapidly scaling manufacture of products like this is that you may be able to surge production of the air-handling elements, but you still need to provide the control element,” Raspberry Pi Foundation CEO Eben Upton told Tom’s Hardware. “Often the components you need are on 20-week lead times and (hopefully) we’ll be out of the other side of this pandemic by then.”
The least powerful of the Raspberry Pi family, the Pi Zero features a 1GHz single-core CPU with 512MB of RAM and a $5 price tag—versus the $35 Pi 4 Model B, which boasts a quad-core CPU and 2GB memory. So why are medical manufacturers gunning for the inferior product (aside from its meager cost)?
“I believe the interest in Zero is mostly down to it offering enough compute for the relatively modest requirements of a ventilator,” Upton said. “Although I know some of the approaches out there … aim to scale production of the sort of lightweight ventilator they use in ambulances, so size may also be a factor.”
This is, to Upton’s knowledge, the first time Raspberry Pi computers have been used in medical devices. Two Colombian hospitals are set to test Pi-powered ventilators designed by a robotics engineer in California.