Inflatable incubator scoops top engineering award


Loughborough University graduate wins £30,000 to develop low-cost, transportable baby-saving device

An innovative incubator for premature babies has picked up a top engineering award.

A prototype of the new ‘Mom’ inflatable incubator was chosen as the international winner of this year’s James Dyson Award.

The equipment costs a fraction of the price to make than commonly-used alternatives and was developed by Loughborough University graduate, James Roberts.

He began work on Mom as part of a final-year project inspired by a TV documentary.

He said: "I was watching a Panorama programme about Syrian refugees and they had a segment about how there are loads of premature kids dying because of the stresses of war and specifically the lack of incubators out there and the infrastructure to support them. I thought there has to be a way to solve that."

The £30,000 windfall from the awards judging panel means he can now continue work on the machine, which he hopes to bring to market by 2017.

The device is designed to be delivered as flat-packed parts that are assembled at their destination.

At its heart is a sheet of plastic containing inflatable transparent panels that are blown up manually and then heated by a ceramic element. This wraps around the interior of the unit to keep a newborn warm.

"When it's opened it won't collapse in on the child and will maintain its shape," Roberts explained.

An Arduino computer is used to keep the temperature stable, control humidification, and manage a phototherapy lamp that can be used to treat jaundice, as well as sound an alarm.

The electronic components are designed to use as little power as possible and can be run off a car battery for more than 24 hours when mains electricity is not available.

The modular design of the kit allows damaged parts to be replaced without compromising the whole unit. And, after the child is taken out of the incubator, it can be collapsed and the plastic sheet sterilised so that Mom can be easily transported for re-use elsewhere.

"Normally with incubators it costs loads to get them anywhere because you need huge boxes to put them in, and that can cost a lot to put on a flight," Roberts said.

"This one can go in a care packages already used for refugee camps."

He estimated that the current prototype would cost about £250 to manufacture, and suggested it would offer a similar level of performance to modern systems that cost £30,000.

The design was praised by one of the UK's leading neonatal experts.

"In resource-poor settings, the cold is one of the biggest killers of babies that are born slightly premature," said Dr Martin Ward Platt, a consultant paediatrician at Newcastle's Royal Victoria Infirmary.

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"Just being able to maintain a good and stable environment is of enormous importance.”