Tech Attacks Coronavirus

Hardware hackers and the software open source community are creating low cost, buildable projects to combat coronavirus.
  • Here’s a showcase of the range of technologies – mostly low cost and buildable projects – that the tech community has created to detect, test and eliminate coronavirus. This wrap up includes everything from wearable, robotic and hardware devices to software apps on the phone, web bots and AI-powered services.

    Ring of (Fever) Fire

    One way to help in the early detection of the onset of coronavirus is by monitoring a person’s temperature. A startup, named Oura, is working with the University of California, San Francisco, to do just that with a wearable device. The company has created an electronic ring. Such a device could anticipate the early onset of the virus by as many as two to three days by simply monitoring the temperature. The ring works with a smart phone app to present the data to the user.

  • Behavior Changing Glasses

    One of the primary ways that coronavirus is transmitted is from a person’s hands to their face. To change this behavior, a creative designer who goes by Nick Bild put together a device he called the “Sentinel.”

    To reduce the number of times a person touches their face, this device shines a warning light when such behavior is detected. The design is prototyped using an Arduino, which controls an LED through feedback from an ultrasonic proximity sensor. The LED flashes into the user’s peripheral vision, glowing when the sensor detects hands (or other objects) approaching the face.

    All of the details for this design are contained on GitHub.

  • Thermometer Guns

    The power of infrared thermal imaging has been covered before, particularly as thermal imaging via thermographic cameras, e.g., from Opgal, Flir or others. The coronavirus has brought such thermal imaging technologies to a new level of awareness thanks to the now iconic images of masked officials in China aiming a thermometer “gun” at a traveler’s forehead. These handy if not completely accurate devices have been deployed by both government officials and private citizen to screen people for fevers associated with the COVID-19.

    A thermometer gun is a device that contains an infrared sensor that quickly measures surface temperatures without making any contact with the surface, e.g., a person’s skin. Such devices have gained popularity in recent years to slow the spread of diseases like SARS and Ebola.

    The popularity of thermometer guns combined with people’s fear for the COVID-19 has caused a shortage of these useful device. In response, distributors like Amazon and other have been working to shore up supplies while at the same time working to stop the artificially-inflated prices of thermometer guns that typically cost under $100 US.

    Of course, you could always build your own (see next slide).

  • Build Your Own Non-Contact Thermometer

    If you don’t want to pay for a commercial thermometer gun, you can always built your own. As this project by Ijon Tichy on Youtube shows, it’s a pretty straight forward task. The builder uses a MLX90614 sensor, HP QDSP-6040 display and ATtiny2313 MCU. Also, SparkFun has a number of IR sensors projects that should work as well. The nice thing about Ijon Tichy’s project is it’s aesthetics, e.g., the circuit board is thin and the components are balanced across it’s surface.

  • Detecting Coronavirus on Surfaces

    Part of the challenge in stopping the transmission of coronavirus is to detect it. The Chai team has developed a detection test that works with their Open qPCR tool. The device is based on BeagleBone Black and was released as an open source Kickstarter project shipping since 2016.

    The CDC has released primers and probe information for performing the PCR tests, which are techniques for testing for DNA sequences. The Open qPCR machine and the company’s soon to be released test kit employing the open sourced RNA extraction can be used by DIY researchers to test environmental surfaces. The non-profit and open source friendly Foundation is working with Chai to help get these machines and test kits out to communities.

  • Open Source Ventilators

    One critical piece of medical equipment to deal with infected coronavirus patients is a ventilator. Unfortunately, there is a global shortage of these breath-assisting devices. Thankfully, the open source community has stepped forward to create low cost versions of high-cost ventilators. One example is the Open Source Ventilator (OSV) project of Ireland. This project was initiated from a community discussion within a Facebook group called Open Source COVID-19 Medical Supplies (OSCMS). This group rapidly grew and currently is targeting the development of a number of different COVID-19 related medical supplies.

    There are several designs available for manual ventilators, often called Ambus, that must be pumped by hand. Far more desirable are automated systems. Rice University and others are developing ways to automate the ventilation process with low-cost designs.

  • From Cars and Spacecraft to Ventilators

    One might call these corporate tech hacks, i.e., when large companies that were not previously in the medical space now switch gears to help out with specific device shortages. One example appears to be Elon Musk’s company’s. Musk recently tweeted that his Tesla and SpaceX employees are “working on ventilators.” This apparently followed a plea by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to help alleviate a shortage at hospitals gearing up to combat COVID-19.

    This may not be too far a stretch for Musk as his engineer’s already design HEPA medical filters for cars and space vehicles. But only time will tell.

  • 3D-Printed Respirator Parts

    Several projects have been created to design and build open source ventilators. However, one of the limiting factors with existing hospital ventilators are the plastic valve that provide a sterile flow of air. Each valve needs to be changed after each individual patient has used it. Many contributors from the 3D printing community have come forward with ideas to help. The most proven of these ideas has been implemented by a high-quality laser fusion printer companyt. The result was a valve that has shown to be a good as the original.

  • Robots Are a Nurses Best Friend?

    Several companies have designed robots to help alleviate some of the more mundane tasks that nurses must perform. One of those companies is Diligent Robotics, whose bot “Moxi” is equipped with a flexible arm, gripper hand and mobility that enable it find lightweight medical resources, navigate a clinic’s hallways and drop them off for the nurse. Another benefit with Moxi is that robots can’t be infected by biological coronavirus – although they are susceptible to cyber-viruses from hackers.

  • Ultraviolet Robots and Personal Shields

    Several companies are making mobile robots that are able to disinfect patient rooms and operating areas in hospitals by using an array of powerful short wavelength ultraviolet-C (UVC) lights. This UV energy is emitted with sufficient energy to shred the DNA or RNA of any microorganisms, including those found in the coronavirus. Such robots can efficiently disinfect hospitals using UV light in order to slow coronavirus infections.

    One a more personal basis, Plastics Today recently covered the “Be a Bat Man” wearable shield designed by a Beijing-based architectural firm Penda. Co-founder Sun Dayong, who led the project, describes it on the firm’s Instagram account as “a wearable space device that can effectively isolate us outdoors to ensure safety. The ultraviolet radiation network on the surface of the device can heat up to sterilize the surrounding environment, turning contact a way to kill, rather than spread, the virus,” he writes.

  • WiFi from on High

    It’s important during the current coronavirus pandemic to stay connected to the Internet. But bad weather, natural disasters and lack of Internet connections in rural areas makes such connectivity difficult. That’s why a researcher at Queen’s Univeristy in Belfast has invented, “a low-cost telecommunication system using drones which provides early warning on natural disasters and acts as a WIFI ‘hotspot’ when phone signal is disrupted during extreme weather such as earthquakes, tsunamis or hurricanes.”

  • CDC Coronavirus Self-Checker App

    The shortage of coronavirus test kits makes it very difficult for people to tell if they are infected. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has come up with a bot that helps to assess the severity of a person’s symptoms. Named Clara, the “coronavirus self-checker,” helps individuals make decisions about seeking appropriate medical care. According to the website, it is not intended for the diagnosis or treatment of disease or other conditions including COVID-19.

    Rather, the web bot guides users through a series of questions to help determine what kinds of symptoms the person is displaying, as well as whether they have any pre-existing medical conditions and may have come in contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19.  One the website, the bot indicates that it was made possible through a partnership with the CDC Foundation and is enabled by Microsoft’s Azure platform.

  • AI-Powered Software Services

    Several companies have emerged that use artificial intelligence (AI) to help the CDC and other’s respond to coronavirus concernd, including Microsoft and startups like Babylon Health and Ada Health. These are chat-bot applications that are intended to help free time up for doctors, nurses and others who are being overwhelmed with patients.

    Microsoft’s Healthcare Bot is being used on the CDC’s coronavirus self-checker website to quickly assess the symptoms and risk factors for people worried about infection.

  • Diagnostic Development Initiative

    There is an urgent need for diagnostic apps and toold to provide rapid, accurate detection and testing of the coronavirus. Better diagnostics will help accelerate treatment and containment, and in time, shorten the course of this epidemic. Toward that end, Amazon’s AWS – its cloud services arm – has announced the AWS Diagnostic Development Initiative. This initiative will set aside $20 million, which will be distributed in the form of AWS credits and technical support. The program is designed to assist and encourage teams working on coronavirus diagnostic issues with the goal of developing better diagnostic tooling. The website indicates that the aim of the program is to help customers who are working on building diagnostics solutions to bring products to market more quickly.

  • Global Code Challenge Change

    Recently, IBM announced it is refocusing its 2020 Call for Code Global Challenge developer contest to focus on solving issues around the growing virus crisis by building open-source tooling. Originally, this year’s charter for the challenge was to solve problems related to global climate change.

  • Smart Phone Tracker Apps

    There has been a major uptick in smart phone applications created to deal with the coronavirus pandemic. One place to find many of these apps is on the GitHub site, which according to the website is used by, “over 40 million developers working together to host and review code, manage projects, and build software together.”

    The site has an entire section devoted to coronavirus focused open source projects that includes build for APIs, statistics and datasets, models, learning, maps, apps and bots, packages and scripts, SLI, hardware and more

  • Hacked Coronavirus Maps

    Black hat hackers have taken advantage of the coronavirus outbreak to launch new campaigns. One of the more insidious is a hack that infects users with malware when they try to use the legitimate coronavirus dashboard maps touted by John Hopkins University and others.

    The hackers create fake version of these dashboards to steal information from the victim’s browsers. These fake websites prompt users to download an application to stay updated. Unfortunately, this application is really malware.


John Blyler is a Design News senior editor, covering the electronics and advanced manufacturing spaces. With a BS in Engineering Physics and an MS in Electrical Engineering, he has years of hardware-software-network systems experience as an editor and engineer within the advanced manufacturing, IoT and semiconductor industries. John has co-authored books related to system engineering and electronics for IEEE, Wiley, and Elsevier.

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