Building a Better You: Makers Hack the Human Body

3D Printing & Imaging Arduino Robotics Technology
Building a Better You: Makers Hack the Human Body
Screen Shot 2013-09-13 at 1.21.35 PM
Raj Singh demonstrates his telerobotic hand.

Eighteen year old Raj Singh has been building robots since he was 12. He was the captain of his high school robotics team and helped develop the team’s competition ‘bot. But Raj, who is headed to Dressler University this fall to study biomedical engineering, grew restless and instead of making another clever toy, he wanted to develop a practical robot to help people.

“Why make a robot that does a task that’s so mundane,” he said. “I wanted to push the envelope and see what I could do personally.”

Making Meets the Human Body

So for the past two years he’s been building a teleoperated robotic hand designed to be used by amputees. Using a MakerBot Replicator 2, Arduinos, and linear actuators in each finger, he’s designed software and hardware that he says read the muscle impulses in the user’s forearms to give it “intuitive individual digit control.”

That means if you think about moving your index and middle finger to make a peace sign, that’s what the robot hand does.

“It recognizes what actions you wanted to do if you had a hand,” he said. “WIth this robotic arm you would actually be able to play the piano.”

He’s applied for two provisional patents on the device and is planning to offer it as a kit. While a commercially available robotic limbs can cost more than $100,000, his cost about $1,500 to make. And against the counsel of several “wealth advisors” he’s considering open sourcing the design. He’s excited about what the maker community could do with his designs.

“My knowledge only goes so far,” he said.

Raj is part of a growing trend of makers building low-cost prosthetics and robotic hands and arms. Aided by affordable materials, 3D printers, and open source technology, the merging of human and machine is a thriving subset of the maker community. Next week’s World Maker Faire New York will showcase a number of these projects and the makers who made them. These projects are also a testament to the best impulses of human nature: once we possess new skills and technology we look for ways to use them for good and to share them with others.

The New Flesh

Seth Kane was motivated by such an impulse. When he was 9 years old he was determined to build a neural prosthetic suit to help his grandfather cope with Parkinson’s disease. He didn’t succeed in building the suit, but Kane, who also goes by the name Dr. Seth Adventure, has never stopped building enhancements and augmentations for the human body. He makes armatures out of high-impact resins and Kevlar for use by extreme athletes and after-market prosthetic upgrades like adding LEDs or speakers to a artificial limbs. He has a patent for an electro-magnet based telescoping artificial muscle actuator.

He calls his enterprise the New Flesh Workshop.190727_446994985353844_1657961372_n

He made a fingertip cover for a friend whose hand was crushed by a falling pallet of wood. The device is outfitted with a changeable screwdriver attachment, giving him functionality in a finger that used to get in the way. A bracelet holds additional bits. For another client he built an attachment for a partially missing ring finger, allowing him to play piano with all ten fingers. The musician also works as a DJ and a music tech so Kane added a flashlight into the finger tip for extra functionality. Bright idea.

Fingertip with tool attachment. Note the bracelet with extra bits.

For another client who lost part of his ribcage after suffering a severe electrical shock, he build a multi-layered protective belt that allowed him to go backcountry snowboarding. Because the injury left his vital organs exposed, tripping on the sidewalk could be fatal. Snowboarding posed a much greater risk.  Kane made the device for him and checked in with him a few weeks later. He had a great time snowboarding and survived a 200-foot rag-dolling fall down a slope.

“So I know it works,” Kane said.

Modifying and customizing prosthetics is a field that, until recently, didn’t exist.

“People didn’t know to ask for it,” he said.

But when they do, people can not only gain new uses and functionality from artificial limbs, but confidence and pride in what could have been a source of embarrassment, he says.

“It just feels like it’s an extension of yourself,” he said. “I think it’s vitally necessary.”

Kane is largely self-taught and works with about half a dozen collaborators in his New Jersey workshop. He is particularly excited about the full body armor project for amputees complete with muscle and nerve control he’s working on that will allow them to pursue extreme sports or risky work like firefighting or search and rescue. But most of all he wants to see what kind of devices up-and-coming makers are going to make.

“I have no idea what the next generation of makers is going to come up with next,” he said. “That will be great to see.”

He’ll be speaking about his work at Maker Faire in a talk entitled “DIY Super Humans”, but he’ll also encourage others to make their own stuff.

“It’s not just what I’m doing, but ‘here’s what you can do, too.'”

The Next Generation

Joseph Anand is part of that next generation. Anand isn’t interested so much in building robotic or prosthetic limbs, but helping people restore use of what they lost. He hopes to join the Air Force one day and he was struck by the challenge faced by injured vets as they went through physical therapy. Instead of requiring patients to go the hospital for often repetitive (read: boring) exercises, Anand, a home-schooled 15-year-old from Akron, Ohio, had a better idea:

Joseph Anand developing KARTS, his Kinect-based physical therapy tool.

“I thought ‘why couldn’t they do some of the exercises at home?'”

And better yet, he thought, why not add an element of fun and competition by adding a video game feature the exercise. The result: KARTS—Kinect Arduino Rehabilitation Therapy System for Injured Veterans.

With help from the University of Akron and others, Anand developed a game-like excercise system utilizing Microsoft’s Kinect, a gestural interface platform. The prototype uses a cordless drill, an Arduino motor shield, and pulleys attached to weights that give feedback through the Kinect. If the user can’t perform a (doctor approved) exercise the system offers assistance to lift the load. If the load gets too easy, KARTS adds resistance.

Anand imagines networking KARTS to vets could compete with each other and allow allow doctors and physical therapists to monitor and change exercises remotely. Ultimately, he’d like to build an exoskeleton that users wear to perform the exercises.

Anand will be exhibiting his system at Maker Faire Sept. 21-22. Check it out and see what other human/machines interfaces makers have brought to life. Raj Singh and “Dr. Seth Adventure” Kane will speak Sept. 21 at at 4:30pm and 4:45pm respectively on the Make: Live stage. 

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Stett Holbrook is editor of the Bohemian, an alternative weekly in Santa Rosa, California. He is a former senior editor at Maker Media.

He is also the co-creator of Food Forward, a documentary TV series for PBS about the innovators and pioneers changing our food system.

View more articles by Stett Holbrook


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