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Low-cost robotic arm wins James Dyson Award

A low-cost, battery-powered robotic arm prosthetic created by four students in the US has been awarded the James Dyson Award for design and engineering.

(Credit: Dyson)

A low-cost, battery-powered robotic arm prosthetic created by four students in the US has been awarded the James Dyson Award for design and engineering.

One of the biggest barriers to accessible robotic prosthetics is cost, which can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Four students at the University of Pennsylvania — the first US team to win the award since its 2007 launch: Nick Parrotta, pursuing a master's degree in mechanical engineering; Nick McGill, pursuing a master's degree in robotics; Elizabeth Beattie, pursuing a PhD in mechanical engineering; and graduate in mechanical design Niko Vladimiroc — have created a battery-powered arm, called the Titan Arm, for under AU$2000.

The project began in September last year as part of their studies, inspired by the work of other companies to create medical and military exoskeletons, such as Ekso Bionics, which builds exoskeletons to help paraplegics walk. Although the work they do is highly admirable, robotic prosthetics aren't covered by US health insurance, Parrotta told CNET Australia, which puts them out of reach of most of the people who need them.

(Credit: Dyson)

To lower the cost, the Titan Arm was built out of aluminium, which can be machined low cost, and rather than a system of complex joint actuators, it uses a single motor on the back to power a cable drive system. It fits on like a backpack, and a series of straps attaches it to the wearer's arm. Meanwhile, it's powered by two lithium-polymer batteries on the back, so the Titan Arm can be worn completely tetherless. "A lot of exoskeletons use a power cord or a pump," Parrotta explained. Overall, it weighs in at about 8 kilograms — about the weight of a student backpack.

The Titan Arm can add 18 kilograms to the wearer's lifting strength. Although this could be of great help to users who are mobility impaired, with sensors on the joints that can track movement in real time and send data to medical professionals, the team also has hopes that the arm could be preventative as well. A massive 37 per cent of lower back injuries are caused by lifting heavy objects in the workplace.

"We all know someone who has suffered a back or arm injury and worked hard to recover or live with permanent damage," the team said in their submission. "As a team, we are passionate about developing a tool that allows people to live normally, by both preventing injuries and lessening their effects. We became even more motivated as we met therapists and patients working through these hardships. Each story showed how demoralising upper body injuries can be. We hope that Titan will empower people to reclaim their lives."

(Credit: Dyson)

Initially, the team hadn't even considered entering the James Dyson Award. "We heard about it from a professor," Parrotta said. "She saw it and told us, 'There's this international competition you might want to enter.' We're over the moon about this. We're really excited to hear about the results."

With the AU$45,000 prize money, the team plans to develop the Titan Arm further — right now, it's a proof of concept, but with a little more work, it could be brought to market for under AU$10,000. The next step is beta testing, after which the team hopes to look at other materials, such as 3D printing, which would allow them to build custom-fitted versions. Then, they'd like to have a look at upgrading the control source — perhaps even taking into account the recent developments in electroencephalography (EEG) control.

But that may be putting the horse a little before the cart. "It's a technology that's definitely up and coming right now, but right now, it's a little off," Parrotta said. "Brain control for exoskeletons is definitely a road for the future."