This project is about creating low-cost advanced robotic hands for amputees everywhere, enabling amputees to gain greater independence, and to encourage young amputees to feel good about their differences.
You're a born maker and tinkerer, you love building, and you have a soft spot for robots. How would losing your hand tomorrow affect you and your ambitious plans to build a fleet of robots? This thought came to me when I was 17 years old and terrified me. I decided I urgently needed to create a robotic hand for myself as a backup. I looked around the house for materials, found some sheet metal in the shed, some string in a drawer, grabbed my Dad's tools, some hobby servos, and hacked together my first robotic hand. At this point I had no idea how exclusive the world of robotic prosthetic hands was. I was just happy I had made a working robotic hand out of bits and bobs. I didn't think anything else about it and moved onto my next project, building a Segway.
I was at university studying Robotics when I decided to explore the concept of robotic hands further. It was here that I found out that hand amputees have extremely limited access to robotic prosthetics. These tools that could change so many people's lives were prohibitively expensive, around £30,000 to £60,000. I then found out how crippling these expenses would be for families of young amputees because children need to be refitted once or twice a year as they continue to grow. I convinced my university to allow me to start a project to develop low-cost robotic prosthetics. The university thought the task would be too great to achieve in a year but I managed it by 3D printing a working robotic prosthetic.
I finished university with a first class degree and went straight into a well paid engineering graduate scheme at National Instruments (NI). I was keen to get started on my engineering career at NI but I couldn't shake knowing that I had developed a working prototype for a robotic prosthetic hand that really could be a game-changer for the prosthetics industry. I felt like I knew something that could make a huge impact for amputees everywhere.
So, I quit my job at NI, moved back into my parent's house, and put all of my savings into buying a 3D printer and begun sketching designs for a better 3D printed robotic hand that amputees could wear. I soon realised what I was doing was going to need a lot of development so I turned to Indiegogo and launched a crowd-funding campaign called The Open Hand Project. I passed my goal and raised over £44,000. The cool thing about this was that hand amputees and family members and friends of amputees were paying for the development of the product they desperately wanted the chance to buy. This was the first time I started a dialogue with lots of hand amputees and parent's of young amputees all over the world. Hearing from those people, hearing their stories about how when they were younger they loathed wearing their heavy cosmetic prosthetics and hated being forced to wear a hook as a child, propelled me forward. Amputees and the community really liked my ideas and designs so I put all my effort into improving my sketches and prototypes. You can see the campaign video here > https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dI-dNE2yQ0
The problem became more personal for me after meeting Liam, who is a professional chef and wanted a robotic prosthetic hand to help him in the kitchen, and six-year-old Charlotte, who lost all her limbs to meningitis and currently isn't using any hand prosthetics because they're all too 'ugly' and 'heavy' for her. I was also inspired by Alfie whose Mum got in touch with us after searching for prosthetics online. Four-year-old Alfie was born without a right hand and doesn't want to wear a cosmetic hand. He's starting to hide his limb difference behind him like it's something to be ashamed of because it's different. I want to make Alfie, and children like him, a superhero inspired hand that he loves to wear and that will help him to do more things other kids his age can do.
The problem of current robotic prosthetics is their financial barriers. The only alternative to a robotic prosthetic is a cosmetic hand that is functionless and heavy, or an alienating hook.
I can 3D print a robotic prosthetic hand inspired by comic books and superheros that hand amputees enjoy showing off for a fraction of the price. I can make robotic prosthetics accessible by 3D printing them and selling them for under £1,000. I can help young amputees to be proud of their limb differences.
The wait time for a custom-fit prosthetic device can be weeks or months. By using 3D scanning and 3D printing we can radically reduce this waiting time. I have 3D scanned an amputee and 3D printed them a custom-fit socket and robotic hand in under a week. The scan time for a socket is minutes, the print time is 40 hours. The print time for a hand is another 40 hours. This is revolutionary.
I want the technology I'm developing to really affect change and benefit people so all of my development has been open source. You can download the Dextrus, my first design, from The Open Hand Project website right now and build your own hand. People in the US, Canada, Ecuador, Scotland, and the Ukraine have downloaded and built Dextrus hands.
The design utilizes "soft robotics" to take advantage of an extremely lightweight and low-cost manufacturing process and completely disrupt the prosthetics industry. The hand is 3D printed in a flexible material which means an entire hand can be created with just 4 manufactured parts. This reduces assembly time without compromising on design, since the hand can have a fluid and natural external appearance and be printed in any colour. The use of a flexible material makes the hand extremely robust to falls and knocks as the entire device is mechanically compliant.
The design is bio-mimetic and as it's developed further I'm looking to combine multiple materials to replicate bones, ligaments and skin within the hand. This will reduce the weight even further and will help to maintain a low weight and structural stability in children's hands.
The hand, at the moment, is controlled by EMG sensors stuck to an amputee's skin. An amputee will flex their residual muscles to open and close the fingers. The amputee can 'double flex' a muscle to change the hand's grip pattern and perform a fine pinch grip.
The hand can perform all tasks the advanced robotics hands can, including individual finger actuation. A problem we're working on at the minute is creating a more sophisticated muscle reading interface so amputees can make use of more functions. The hand has 'smart' fingers, so it knows when it comes into contact with an object and will grip around the object nicely and stop before crushing it.
After a year's worth of development with The Open Hand Project I decided to start a company in April 2014 in preparation to start selling these devices. In August Samantha Payne joined my project and together we conducted over 50 customer interviews with hand amputees of all ages from the US and the UK. We found that having a light-weight prosthetic trumped having an advanced robotic hand. Amputees were far more concerned with the weight and the look of the hand than they were with the amount of dexterity it had. After discovering this I changed the focus from fine, precise finger movements to aesthetic and weight saving design. I'm now more focused on treating the robotic hands as interchangeable tools and even fashion accessories. Hand amputees would like prosthetics that are more fashionable and fun. An amputee would want two or three affordable robotic hands, all different colours and designs to wear for different occasions. By changing my focus, the result, so far, is that the latest prototype was very well received by the amputee community and the end product will be really well suited to the customer's needs. The video I have submitted is of Dan, who was born without a right hand, testing an older prototype.
I've so far created 10 working prototypes and I'm currently 3D modeling the 11th with my team of three. I aim to have a wireless, fully integrated hand in six months that is ready for intensive field testing.
My designs have not yet been commercialised. Ive had a number of informal 'pre-orders' where amputees have said they want to buy a hand as soon as it's ready. I plan to sell the hands and release the open source files so that as many people as possible can benefit from the technology. This is about driving a big change and democratising technology.
My designs have been publicly backed by Limbcare and The Limbless Association, two of the biggest amputee orgs in England. My plans are regularly featured in assistive tech magazines and amputee magazines too, so my designs and work are well known within the community.
- Plymouth University's 'Best Innovation Award' 2011
- Limbless Association's 'Prosthetic Innovation of the Year Award' 2014
- 2nd place for Intel's global 'Make It Wearable' competition 2014
- Awarded the British Engineering Excellence's 'Young Design Engineer of The Year Award' 2014
- Won Intuit's 'Britain's Best Startup Idea' competition 2014
- Awarded TechSpark's 'Founder of the Year' award 2014
- Won Computer Bild's 'Best Product Innovation Award' at the Consumer Electronics Show 2015
- Currently short-listed for Semta's 'Engineering Hall of Fame' award 2015
- Samantha is currently short-listed for Women In Business's 'Entrepreneur of the Year' award 2015
- We've just been short-listed for Nesta's 'Inclusive Tech Prize' 2015