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

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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Robot Moth Is Learning to Fly Like A Real Moth

Harvard University has had the flying robot insect market covered for a long time. However, their robot bee, while cool, was starting to bum them out. They wanted to put the battery and brain on the robocritter and have it fly around without a tether. Technology just wasn’t moving fast enough for them, so they’ve picked a different bug, this time a moth.

The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University is known for its Flying Winged Micro Air Vehicles or FWMAV. Which is a pretty good example of what happens when you let engineers name things. This FWMAV, weighs in at a hefty 3grams and has a 16mm wingspan. It also has propulsion, sensors, communication, brains, and power on board. Pretty impressive, the heaviest item is the motor!

The moth can produce 4g of thrust, and they’ve shown it capable of staying aloft once launched with a small catapult. Since they’ve proven that it can at least fly, the next steps are to figure out the dynamics of moth-based flight. Right now it stays pointed in the right direction with a very tiny tail fin like on an airplane. Real moths manage this feat with independent wing control, which the robot doesn’t have yet.

It will be a while before a we’ll see robot moths bumping into our computer monitors a night, stealing our passwords, but it’s a really cool exercise in robot miniaturization.

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DTMF Robot Makes Rube Goldberg Proud

Sometimes you start building, and the project evolves. Layers upon layers of functionality accrue, accrete, and otherwise just pile up. Or at least we’re guessing that’s what happened with [Varun Kumar]’s sweet “Surveillance Car Controlled by DTMF“.

In case you haven’t ever dug into not-so-ancient telephony, Dual-tone, multi-frequency signalling is what made old touch-tone phones work. DTMF, as you’d guess, encodes data in audio by playing two pitches at once. Eight tones are mapped to sixteen numbers by using a matrix that looks not coincidentally like the old phone keypad (but with an extra column). One pitch corresponds to a column, and one to a row. Figure out which tones are playing, and you’ve decoded the signal.

Anyway, you can get DTMF decoder chips for pennies on eBay, and they make a great remote-control interface for a simple robot, which is presumably how [Varun] got started. And then he decided that he needed a cell phone on the robot to send back video over WiFi, and realized that he could also use the phone as a remote controller. So he downloaded a DTMF-tone-generator app to the phone, which he then controls over VNC. Details on GitHub.

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Hackaday Prize Entry: A Low-Cost Robot Arm

Robot arms are cool, and to judge from the SCARA arms and old Heathkit robots tucked away in a cupboard of every computer science department in every university in the world, they’re still remarkably educational. You can learn a lot about control systems with a robot arm, or you could build a clone of the old Radio Shack Armatron; either way, you’re doing something very cool. Right now, there aren’t many educational robot arms available, and the ones you can get are tiny. For [Jonathan]’s Hackaday Prize project, he’s building a low-cost robot arm with a one meter reach.

There’s a reason you won’t find many large, low-cost robot arms: the square cube law. An ant can carry many times its own body weight, but if you scaled that ant up to the size of a human, its legs couldn’t support itself. Likewise, a small, handheld robot arm will work perfectly well with hobby servos, but scaling this up requires big heavy stepper motors.

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Robot Cheerleader Just Needs A Hand To Learn Basic Tricks

This robot may have the fastest hand we’ve ever seen. It’s only a hand at the moment, but it’s certainly good with it.

The hand comes from a research project out of the University of Washington. The researchers didn’t just want to program the robot to do tricks, they wanted it to learn. Some tasks are just by nature too complex and tedious to program all the details for. Look at all those tendon activators. You want to program that?

The current focus of the robot is twirling a stick. While they’re probably a ways away from a robot cheerleading squad or robot drum major, the task itself is extremely difficult. This can be proven by just how many YouTube videos there are on the art of pencil twirling.

While the video didn’t show the robot dramatically twirling the stick at high speed, it did show the robot rotating it a little bit without dropping it. And this is a behavior that it has learned. For anyone who has ever had a run-in with robotics, or the art of convincing a robot not to discard all the data it collects in order to not run directly into a wall, this is a pretty big achievement. Video after the break.

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Robo Face Speaks

If you are doing a senior design project in engineering school, it takes some guts to make a robotic duplicate of the school’s president. He or she might be flattered, or completely offended. Us? We laughed out loud. Check out the video below. Spoiler: the nose/moustache wiggle at the end kills us every time.

The project uses a variety of parts including a plastic mask, an Erector set, and the obligatory Arduino with an MP3 shield. There are many articulated parts including eyes, nose, mouth, and wiggly moustache. The face uses RC servos, although [gtoombs] says he’d use stepper motors next time for smoother motion.

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Eddie The Balance Bot

Eddie is a surprisingly capable tiny balancing robot based around the Intel Edison from which it takes its name.

Eddie’s frame is 3D printed and comes in camera and top hat editions. The camera edition provides space for a webcam to be mounted, since the Edison has enough go power to do basic vision. The top hat edition just lets you 3D print a tiny top hat for the robot.

The electronics are based around the Edison board and Sparkfun’s set of, “Blocks” designed for it. This project needs the battery block, the H-Bridge block, the GPIO block, and the USB block along with a 9DOF block for balancing. It’s, somewhat unfortunately, not a cheap robot. The motors are Pololu all-metal gearmotors with hall-effect sensors acting as encoders.

We’re really impressed with [diabetemonster]’s design and documentation on the robot. Full source code is provided along with a very nice build guide to get the platform going fast.

There are a few videos of it in action, available after the break. They show it handling situation such as a load being placed on the robot and slopes as well as bonus features like dancing and remote control.

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