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The University of Southampton

President's Special Award from Royal Academy for ingenious PeRSo team

Published: 17 August 2020
"PeRSo is a triumph of ingenuity at a time of global adversity and national emergency"

The Royal Academy of Engineering (RAEng) has awarded the University of Southampton team behind PeRSo - Personal Respirator Southampton - with a President’s Special Award for Pandemic Service for exceptional engineering achievements in tackling COVID-19 throughout the UK.

The awards are being made to teams, organisations, individuals, collaborations and projects across all technical specialities, disciplines and career stages within the UK engineering community who have contributed to addressing the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Specially-commissioned silver medals will be presented to all 19 winners later this year.

Southampton’s PeRSo team is led by Paul Elkington , Professor of Respiratory Medicine and Hywel Morgan , Professor of Bioelectronics. One week before lockdown in March, colleagues from the University’s Faculty of Medicine and Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences came together to develop a powered air purifying respirator (PAPR) for healthcare workers. With help from the university’s Institute for Life Sciences, a team was assembled and the idea went from a rough sketch to a prototype within four days.

By the time lockdown began, refined prototype development and basic functional testing were completed with prototypes then given to frontline medical staff who provided useful and very positive feedback.

The early stage prototype was made possible through collaboration with industry partners, including McLaren and Kemp Sails. A local Southampton-based company called INDO Lighting on behalf of Baynham’s repurposed its furloughed manufacturing capability and delivered a re-engineered prototype, which has been tested in hospitals and is currently awaiting final regulatory approvals which are making positive progress.

“PeRSo is a triumph of ingenuity at a time of global adversity and national emergency thanks to the collaborative efforts of like-minded colleagues from across the University of Southampton and key partners from industry,” said Professor Mark Spearing, Vice-President (Resarch and Enterprise) at the University of Southampton. “All of us at the University would like to congratulate this special group who came together so quickly and effectively to focus on creating a solution to benefit their colleagues working on the frontline.”

Professor Morgan said: “I am sure the entire team will join me in expressing our gratitude to the Royal Academy of Engineering for the President’s Special Award in recognition of their sterling efforts in developing the PeRSo respirator.  The project is a great example of an interdisciplinary engineering team responding to an urgent need, working closely with clinical colleagues to develop a simple, yet practical solution.  We were also very fortunate to have enthusiastic support from local industry, who worked around the clock in the early days, and without whom I am certain the final product would never have materialised.”

Professor Sir Jim McDonald, President of the RAEng, added: “The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest public health crisis of our time and has presented society with multiple challenges. Engineering expertise and innovation has been central to the global fight to save lives and protect livelihoods. I am incredibly proud of engineers everywhere who have worked round the clock to maintain essential services, critical supply chains and infrastructure in unprecedented circumstances, using their training and skills to find innovative solutions to a host of problems and to help mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on our daily lives.”

PeRSo consists of a fabric hood which covers the wearer’s head, integrated with a plastic visor to protect their face. A small portable unit delivers clean air through a HEPA filter to the wearer from a battery powered fan pack mounted on a belt.

The prototype was created using off-the-shelf components, and received very positive feedback from doctors, nurses and patients in initial demonstrations. While PeRSo is not the first commercial power-assisted personal respirator, it is simpler and is designed to be manufactured quickly and at low cost. Furthermore, while PPE is often said to neglect female users, the PeRSo design is inclusive, addressing neck muscle fatigue by minimising head-mounted weight.

The concept has been published open-source and available to other manufacturers and organisations around the world. The team is also working with people in developing countries to create simpler prototypes making it clear, in each case, that the devices must pass local safety regulations.

Together with Professor Elkington and Professor Morgan, the University of Southampton’s award-winning first phase PeRSo team includes: Dr Alex Dickinson , Associate Professor in the Bioengineering Science Research Group; Dr Daniel Spencer , Electronics and Computer Science; Dr Mark Mavrogordato , Senior Research Fellow and Director (Operations) at the µ-VIS X-Ray Imaging Centre; Dr Ric Gillams , Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Electronics and Computer Science; Dr Antonio De Grazia , Research Fellow in Micro and Nano Therapies; Dr Sebastian Rosini , Beamline Scientist and µ-VIS Fellow; Dr Alexandra Mant , Collaboration Manager, Institute for Life Sciences.

The PeRSo project was fortunate to receive support at an early stage from significant donors and from funding provided through the Southampton Coronavirus Response Fund . This includes a donation of more than £168,000 from Southampton graduates Dr Alison Steele and Stefan Cross QC, who met at the University in the 1980s. Their significant contribution will fund a post-doctoral researcher to help build and test further prototypes of the respirator, including a lightweight version for care home staff and other frontline workers, plus a flat-pack, low-cost version for prompt use in developing countries.

The Fund, which has now raised over £650,000, was launched in April to support and accelerate the University’s research and other activities aimed at tackling the global pandemic. To date, the Fund has received donations from 1,150 staff, students and alumni from nearly 40 countries as well as members of the local community in Southampton. The University has been able to grant funds to a number of interdisciplinary research teams developing new ways of tackling the disease. Funds have also been distributed to support student nurses and medics working on the frontline.

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The award-winning PeRSo team.
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