Riley Technologies Answers the Call in the Fight Against the Novel Coronavirus COVID-19 Outbreak

Race and Championship Winning Auto Racing Constructor and Designer Shifts Business Operations to PAPR Mask Engineering and Production

Riley Technologies, a race and championship winning auto racing constructor and design, engineering and fabrication firm based in the greater Charlotte area, has answered the call in the fight against the novel coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak.

Riley has been asked by Piedmont Medical Center in Rock Hill, South Carolina, for the immediate engineering and production of Powered Air Purifying Respirator (PAPR) masks, which are in short supply and high demand for the legions of medical caregivers treating COVID-19 victims around the country.

“It’s really a great honor that our motorsports background and engineering skills can be used on a project like this,” said Christian Rushforth, Riley Technologies Senior Designer. “Rather than just watching and sitting on the sidelines we are actually involved right in the middle of this to develop a new product to keep the medical doctors and nurses safe. It is truly an honor.”

A motorsports technology leader in business for 20 years, Riley Technologies normally produces and, through its subsidiary Riley Motorsports, races state-of-the-art sports cars using the latest mechanical, safety and composite technology.

The company was founded by Bill Riley and his father Bob Riley, who is an internationally recognized pioneer in race car design and construction. Both Rileys worked professionally in motorsports prior to starting Riley Technologies, including an award-winning and still-going-strong 60-year career for Bob Riley, 89, that has seen him conceive and design racecars that have won the Indianapolis 500 and scored dozens of victories at Daytona International Speedway. The elder Riley was honored by the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America (MSHFA) in 2013 with its prestigious Heritage Award in acknowledgement of his numerous contributions to auto racing.

With motorsports events shutdown worldwide for at least the next two months, the Rileys were evaluating their business operations in late March when they were contacted by Piedmont. A social-distance-safe meeting took place halfway between Charlotte and Rock Hill during which the Riley team received PAPR mask photographs and a damaged unit no longer suitable for service to use as a model.

“Being that we are in the fast paced, R&D and motorsports circle, we are used to designing and building products very, very quickly that do a really good job for the people that are going to use them,” Rushforth said. “We went straight to work on a prototype.”

Similar in design and concept to “helmet-blower” fresh-air cooling systems commonly used as driver aids in modern motorsports, the general operating system of a PAPR mask is not foreign to the Riley team. With the hourglass already turned upside down, the bigger challenge is the quick design and production and sourcing of suitable parts. Riley is up to the task.

In addition to innovative design resources, Riley has in-house carbon fiber composite and 3D Printing capability, which will both be used in the mask production. Other components, such as the fans that move the air through the masks, are being sourced from known suppliers.

“We can do much of the work in-house, but we are also trying to find parts that are readily available,” Rushforth said. “Each mask is connected to a box that rides on the hip of the user. Inside is a filter and motorized fan, and none of those exact parts currently exist or are available. So, what we are doing is searching to find off-the-shelf parts from within our industry, designing our own filters, designing the housing box and then the vent pipe that extends from the box to the back of the mask.”

Rushforth is leading the project and the overall mask design. Bob Riley is designing the box that holds the fan, filter, battery and motor, which will be produced in-house. Tyler Hook, a lead engineer for Riley Technologies and Riley Motorsports, is overseeing all electrical components.

For the power source, Hook is evaluating Riley’s own purpose-built battery pack as well as units similar to drill and impact driver quick-change batteries.

“We are still in the bench testing stage so final electrical components have not yet been assigned, but the positive air flow hood at its core is very similar to the race car driver helmet cooling system,” Hook said. “There is certainly some direct technology and knowledge crossover.”

Riley hopes to have a finished prototype back to Piedmont for their evaluation, review and testing by the middle of April. Once it is fine tuned and approved, the initial production run calls for of 250 – 500 units for Piedmont Medical Center’s use. A successful initial run could quickly see production ramped up to meet a national demand that is already dire.

Rushforth, Hook and Bob Riley are handling the current project work as a trio, but once they are given the green light, several Riley colleagues that are ready and waiting will join them for overall production, parts sourcing and around-the-clock carbon fiber and 3D printing operations.

“Our motorsports upbringing teaches you what effort and level of resources you need to call on to do things quickly and produce a product that is good, correct out of the box or as close as it can be to working right away,” Rushforth said. “There’s not many industries that can produce these concept designs and bring them to fruition as quickly as we do in motorsports. That is good, because the timing for this project is immediate.”

  • Piedmont Medical Center found Riley Technologies through a referral from Rock Hill-based Composite Resources, which is the parent company of CORE autosport, a fellow competitor of Riley Motorsports in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. Composite Resources began its own production of personal and institutional mouth and nose face masks in late March and demand was immediate. Composite Resources referred Riley when their neighbor hospital needed the more elaborate design, engineering and construction required for the medical-grade PAPR masks. Composite Resources has in turn already introduced Version 2 of its masks with sales in the thousands to date, and even higher numbers expected in the coming months.

Adam Saal, photos Riley