• Nea Alanen

Behind the curtains of E3 project: How well can the coughing head robot simulate human aerosols

At the moment the E3 Pandemic response and Enterprise Solutions co-innovation project is studying intensively how aerosols are spreading, Around this subject the already famous coughing robot head is a great tool. We visited the research chambers of VTT to know more what is going on and why.


Jyrki Widenius, Jani Hakala and Paavo Heikkilä are setting up the coughing head robot testing environment in the VTT chamber.

”You should wear this…”, says the VTT Senior Research Scientist Jani Hakala as he hands me a special FFP-mask that looks way more efficient than the ones I’m used to in my everyday life.


“The smoke we use for simulating the aerosols isn’t that healthy” he continues as I find my way into the small metallic chamber, the room where the scientists do their coughing head tests. Here the temperature, ventilation and air humidity are strictly regulated.

“It’s actually sulfuric acid”, Hakala adds.


I grab my camera and lean towards the shiny metallic wall. There’s a bald woman’s doll head standing on a construction in the corner of the room, staring into emptiness.

Its body is just wires, metallic rack, and some weird installations. Straight from a sci-fi movie.


Doctoral researcher Paavo Heikkilä (Tampere University) closes the door and leaves us in the chamber with the head. It’s very dark. “Try to capture the moment when the smoke has just emerged from the robot heads mouth.” Heikkilä advises.


He does his preparations and as soon as his ready, he signals to Jyrki Widenius who is sitting behind the only window into the room. Widenius then releases a burst of smoke from the coughing heads mouth simulating the cough.


The coughing robot head simulating the aerosols with a burst of smoke.

Pufff. The smoke spreads everywhere and fills the chamber.

Wow, this is the way that aerosols presumably flow around. It’s fast. And no, I did not capture it at first.


“That’s why we use this kind of smoke. It’s easily available and this is how we can actually see the aerosols”, Heikkilä explains.


These researchers test the coughing head to see how the smoke is spreading in the room to see what and how they could study the aerosols and emissions more closely. A study to study how to study and if the method is really working.


Paavo Heikkilä is installing the high speed videocamera in the chamber for shooting the simulation in real time. Jyrki Widenius on the right.

“There are two main things in these tests. Firstly, how well can the coughing head simulate actual human cough?”, Heikkilä describes.


“Secondly, how well can we measure these aerosols? Can we even study these droplets? Can we study the microbes and their spreading within these aerosols?”


According to Heikkilä, it is very basic research. This particular coughing head was invented in collaboration with VTT, and Tampere University, and revealed to the public eye in 2020. Since then, it’s been updated and improved. Due to classified reasons, the head is unique and special on a global scale.


Doctoral researcher Paavo Heikkilä and masters student Jyrki Widenius.

The coughing head tests are part of E3 Pandemic Response and Enterprise Solutions co-innovation project that studies novel ways and methods to enable keeping the society open during and despite of pandemics. These aerosol tests help several ongoing research activities within the E3.


Approaching this kind of ambitious target needs highly multidisciplinary cooperation.


Therefore E3 has brought together key experts from 22 companies and seven research organizations for joint development.


The E3 project work includes e.g. studies on different pathways of pathogens and viruses, virus control and detection methods that could be used to keep the indoor air clean and safe in offices, public spaces, and vehicles.


These coughing head tests are part of the currently ongoing research campaign at VTT Tampere in the E3 Looking forward to report on results soon – stay tuned.



Nea Alanen