Fast Company: Afghanistan’s all-girl robotics team is building emergency ventilators out of car parts

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Even though Herat, Afghanistan, is on lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, many of Nahid Rahimi’s days during the pandemic have started with a drive to a mechanic’s workshop. Nahid, 17, is on Afghanistan’s all-girls robotics team, named the Afghan Dreamers; her teammate Somaya Farqui’s father drives the girls, all between 14 and 17 years old, through the shuttered city to their technical adviser’s space, where they’re building ventilators from used car parts.

The Afghan Dreamers first garnered international attention when they were initially denied visas to the United States for the 2017 FIRST Global Challenge, a robotics competition held by FIRST Global, an international education program with teams in 191 countries and an annual season of events. Eventually the White House intervened, and the girls made it to the competition, where they won a medal for courageous achievement.

The team has continued to inspire its nation and the world since, participating in robotics competitions in Estonia, Poland, and Canada, partnering with Afghanistan’s government to build the country’s first STEAM school, and speaking at panels across the world. With the 2020 FIRST Robotics season suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the girls are now working on aiding their country’s response.

Herat’s governor recently put out a plea to engineers to build more ventilators, says Roya Mahboob, a local tech entrepreneur who sponsors and mentors the Afghan Dreamers. The team wanted to help, but they faced a lot of roadblocks; Afghanistan’s lockdown requires special permits for traveling, the shops to source parts are closed—which is why the team decided to use car parts, which are more readily available in the country, Mahboob says—and even though there are 50 students involved with the Afghan Dreamers in total, most families wouldn’t allow their kids to travel and participate because of social distancing mandates and fears over the coronavirus.

“This is a crisis of time, but this is one way we can help our community and especially the doctors and nurses in the hospitals,” she says. The team is working on two prototypes, a gear-based ventilator based on a low-cost design from MIT (FIRST connected Mahboob and the girls to MIT professors who have been providing guidance from afar) and one powered by a Toyota Corolla motor, which costs about $300 in parts to make.

Both Mahboob and Rahimi emphasize that their ventilators are only meant to be used in an emergency situation when standard ventilators aren’t available, but they’re still eager to help in any way. “We were so excited to join the challenge in this pandemic crisis and that the local government believed in our ability and skills to work on such an important project,” Rahimi says. “And it was very important to us if we could save one life through this effort.”

Mahboob hopes the ventilators will be ready by the end of May, at which point they will have to undergo official testing and approval. The ventilator project has a small team—Rahimi; Farqui, 17; Elham Mansori, 16; Florance Poya, 17; Deyna Wahabzadeh, 14; and Mina Ehrary, 16—but “many more families and other girls are excited to do something with the skills that they’ve learned,” she says. Other Afghan Dreamers have started working on a UV-tech machine to kill viruses, and on games and animations that can collect information about how resilient a community is and teach citizens about their responsibilities during a crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

In a country where girls have struggled to receive education and struggled to get opportunities, this team’s accomplishments are challenging long-held perceptions of women. “It’s helped the community believe in women’s abilities,” Mahboob says. She has always believed the Afghan Dreamers’ legacy will go beyond the machines they build, and this effort in a time of crisis is proving that it will. “Looking at these young teenagers, they give us hope for Afghanistan, that we are going in the right direction,” she says. “No matter where you live, what your gender, or social status, if you’re given the same access and the same opportunities and quality of education, everybody in any part of the world can be the next inventor, designer, creator, and they can change your community.”