The Hacker is The Future of the Prosthetic: Hackers Helping Those In Need

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Even the city’s welcome sign is held high by two prosthetic arms.

In the show Full Metal Alchemist, there’s a city called Rush Valley whose main and only business are the high performance prostheses called Automail. Engineers roam the street in Rush Valley; the best have their own shop like that of the high-end clothiers in Saville Row. Of course; it’s all fantasy set in a slightly ridiculous Japanese cartoon, but while walking through this year’s Maker Faire I began to wonder if is a future that may come to be.

The problem with prosthetics is the sheer variety of injuries, body types, and solutions needed. If an injury is an inch higher or an inch lower it can have a big effect on how a prosthetic will interact with the limb. If the skin is damaged or the nerves no longer function a different type of prosthesis will be needed. Some prostheses are to replace a lost limb, others are to assist an ailing body in order to return it to normal function. More than a few are simply temporary aides to help the body along in its healing efforts. Unfortunately, this means that it’s often the case that larger companies only sell the prostheses people are most likely to need; the rarer cases are often left without a solution.

The e-Nable project doesn't mess around.
The e-Nable project doesn’t mess around.

However, we see hackers stepping up and not just working on the problems, but solving them. One of our semifinalists last year, openbionics, inspired one of the projects we’ll be talking about later. There are robotic legs. We met a guy at MRRF who has been 3D printing hands for his son from the E-nable project.

Along these lines, we saw two really cool projects at Maker Faire this year: The first is the Motor-Assistive Glove, or MAG. MAG is designed to help people with Peripheral Neropathy regain some use of their hands while they go through the lengthy road to recovery. Perhipheral Neuropathy is a disease, usually resulting from diabetes, toxin exposure, or infection, where the nerves are damaged in such a way that typically the hands and feet are no longer mobile or feel sensation in a useful way. Once the disease is in full swing, a previously able person will find themselves unable to do simple things like hold a can of soda or grasp a doorknob firmly enough to open it.

The Motor Assistive Glove
The Motor Assistive Glove

We had a chance to interview one of the members of the MAG team, [Victor Ardulov], which you can see in the following video. [Victor] and his group started a research project at the University of Santa Cruz to develop the Motor-Assistive Glove. The concept behind it is simple. People with Peripheral Neuropathy typically have some movement in their hands, but no strength. The MAG has some pressure sensors at the tips of the fingers. When the user puts pressure on the pad; the glove closes that finger. When the pressure is off; the glove opens. The concept is simple, but the path to something usable is a long one.

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Kid Designs His Own Prosthetic Arm at a Summer Camp

Ever heard of the summer camp called Superhero Cyborgs? It’s where [Coby Unger] met nine-year-old [Aidan Robinson] and helped him design his very own custom prosthetic arm.

The camp is put on by KIDmob for kids who have various limb disabilities, and helps give them the tools and guidance to be able to make their very own prosthetics. Some of the designs the children come up with are cool, useful, pretty and sometimes not overly functional — but [Aidan’s] designs really intrigued [Coby] who is a designer and part of the staff at Pier 9, a world-class fabrication facility (and makerspace) run by Autodesk.

There’s a lot of problems with prosthetics for children. They’re very expensive, kids don’t stay the same size, and even though they might cost a lot, they don’t necessarily work that well. [Aidan] had a few commercial options but didn’t like any of them, so much so that he preferred not wear them period. But when he attended the camp he realized he had the ability to design a prosthetic that he’d actually want to wear.

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E-Nable(ing) Shea to Build a Prosthetic Hand for Herself!

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Here’s a heartwarming story for the day. Introducing [Shea], a little 9-year-old girl with a prosthetic hand made possible from a community of internet strangers!

She was born with only the palm of her right hand and a two-digit thumb — no fingers. Despite this day and age, prosthetics aren’t generally that good, or affordable — especially for a quickly growing young girl. So when [Shea] asked for a new hand from Santa before Christmas, her mom, [Ranee], started doing some research online. She had seen 3D printed prosthetics through Facebook posts and managed to track down the E-Nable group, which is a community of maker’s dedicated to lending a hand — quite literally.

The group got her in touch with [Nick Parker], a high school student and robotics enthusiast from California eager to help, who then introduced her (online) to his local Makerspace — from there they connected with the Milwaukee Makerspace (closer to home), and [Frankie Flood], an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

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