Bengaluru: Necessity is the mother of invention. True to this adage, Indian missile scientists have tweaked their trajectory to hit hitherto unknown targets to neutralise COVID-19 threat.
In short, some of the best brains behind a number of strategic and tactical missile missions at APJ Abdul Kalam Missile Complex in Hyderabad are now burning the midnight oil to help medical fraternity fight the coronavirus.
Amid all the restrictions around, a select group of scientists from Research Centre Imarat (RCI), a top arm of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in the Missile Complex, are developing a number of healthcare products on a war-footing.
Seeing the urgency and not wanting to wait for any formal approvals, some scientists have even spent money from their own pockets before the government relaxed rules and gave powers to the lab directors to utilise required funds.
Interestingly, many of the technology used to develop these products to fight COVID-19 are borrowed from systems and sub-systems on board many Indian missiles.
Among the products that have passed the prototype testing stages and already with industrial partners for mass production are: a full face covering mask for healthcare professionals, brushless DC motors (BLDC) for ventilator pumps (which are mainly used for missile control and actuators) and high response solenoid valves (use for missile control) for ventilator pumps to name a few.
Along with local industry work is in full swing to develop multiplexed ventilation system (can be connected to 2-4 patients at a time), multiplexing adapter for existing ventilators with/without any flow control for each channel and multiplexing adapter for existing ventilators with computer-based automated and regulated flow control for each channel.
Team RCI’s contribution is in addition to the bio suits and ventilators being developed by various DRDO labs to combat the virus.
Sources in the Missile Complex confirm to Onmanorama that DRDO headquarters has stationed its Director General (Production Coordination & Services Interaction) G N Rao in Hyderabad to monitor the progress of the design and mass production of these products.
They say DRDO chairman Dr G Satheesh Reddy has been interacting with the scientists and industry partners constantly over video conferencing three to four times a day monitoring the progress of the design and mass production of these products.
The young RCI team consists of scientists from mechanical, electronics and computer science streams working on various missile systems. Their areas of expertise are in electromechanical and hydraulic actuation systems, missile electronic packaging and dynamic testing, imaging sensor and processing, on board embedded computers and real-time software development.
Three core and five supporting teams have been logging close to 20 hours a day in the last two weeks. Most of the team members average around 35 years.
The core team consists of G Sreedhar Babu, Harish Akella, Maruti Sairam with the logistics support from Dr Rahul Dixit, Dr P Anil Kumar, R J K Chari, Harminder Singh and Kuldeep.
Their expertise range from electro mechanical actuation systems, imaging infrared seekers, missile launch console development, missile software development, flight avionics simulation and testing, high precision and response valves, electrical integration of missile systems, heat exchangers and marine systems.
These youngsters (with 10 to 20 years of experience) have worked with missions, including A-SAT, exo/endo-air defence missiles, UAVs, target missiles, Nag, Helina, B05, K4, precision guided munitions, anti-radiation missile and floating test range.
Sources say that scientists have used most of the proven missile systems to suit the urgent timelines with minimal tweaking.
“The visor-type face mask is the best example of quick design and development within three days. Various design options were explored and the prototypes were 3D printed by our production partners and given to a team of doctors for necessary inputs and suggestions. The final product was released after accommodating their suggestions,” says a scientist.
For multiplexing ventilation system, the design was completed in a day with 14 different options being made available to the users. The prototypes were evaluated by a team from Apollo DRDO Hospital and ESICH.
The RCI team said that everyone was motivated to design and deliver products despite several challenges owing to the COVID-19 restrictions, including the lockdown.
“All of us had the required knowledge and expertise to do the job. There were many issues to be solved as we are using the existing designs for a completely different purpose. Lot of verification and validation were to be done as these were now being part of a medical device. In addition we had to face technical and logistic challenges. The Management Service Division, Procurement wing, office og RCI director (Narayana Murthy) and office of Director General, Missiles and Strategic Systems (MSR Prasad) have been backing our efforts non-stop,” says another scientist.
The team sought special permissions from the Ministry of Defence to fast-track procurement process, following which the purchase order was placed within a day for prototype development and die- making. In the normal process this would have taken three weeks.
“Our production partners supported to their maximum extent possible without even asking for the confirmed production order or number of units required. They spent lakhs of rupees for design prototyping, die making and evaluation,” says a scientist.
The scientists said that many hospitals are not sparing any options and are even stockpiling washbasin drain pipes to use as ventilator pipes in a worst case scenario.
“We went to discuss ventilator development and carried 10 prototypes of masks. The medical staffs were so impressed with it and they wanted us to work on multiplexing ventilators for the forecasted requirement. We had to return empty handed as all the prototypes were grabbed by them,” adds the scientist.
Help pours in
Most of the doctors were overwhelmed to deal with missile scientists, a deviation from their normal interactions, to find solutions to an impending threat.
“We could sense the urgency of the innovation and the healthcare professionals are eagerly looking for the gadgets to do their job safely and efficiently,” says a scientist.
Timely help came from Dr Balakrishna of Appolo DRDO Hospital who provided ventilator and lung simulator to see the efficacy of the prototype assembly and 3D printed fittings. Similarly, they said that Dr Srinivas, dean of ESI Medical College, too offered equipment for integrations trials.
Various industrial partners associated with RCI and DRDO in Hyderabad will begin the mass production. The frames will be produced by a Hyderabad-based company iMake. The ventilator multiplexing systems are still under development phase and hunt for a production partner for mass production is on.
In an email response to Onmanorama’s queries Kodeboyina Sudhir of iMake, who is making visor-type masks (face shield) for healthcare professionals, said they have already proven their expertise in aviation electronic parts, tire patterns, prototypes of missile components and miniature/scale models.
He said the firm has already received the final design from RCI after testing 14 versions different hospitals. “The mould design has been finalised and the milling is in progress. Through the injection mould, we will be able to make 5000 units per day, starting April 6,” he adds.
A top DRDO official overseeing the mission says that the entire RCI team was chosen by DRDO chairman Dr Satheesh Reddy based on his association with them while he was the lab director.
The RCI team is quick to share the credit with doctors and medical attendants who gave rare insights into the immediate needs.
(The writer is an independent aerospace and defence journalist, who blogs at Tarmak007 and tweets writetake.)