Helping Hand: Student Designs Prosthetic Limb

When Stephen Hawes ’17 (ENG) was a kid, he liked to play with Legos. But he loved to fold origami, creating whatever he could invent out of reams of Post-it-sized square paper.

“Legos had all the instructions, so they didn’t really do it for me,” he says. Instead, Hawes wanted to create something on his own.

Hawes – a mechanical engineering major who realized during a high school engineering class that he could get paid to invent things – was awarded a UConn IDEA grant in fall 2014 to build a prototype of a customizable, 3-D-printed prosthetic arm and hand that utilizes open source EMG sensors to move the prosthesis.

The IDEA grants program is designed to provide undergraduates in any major a stipend of up to $4,000 to develop innovative, creative, and personally meaningful projects. While the ideas don’t have to be tied to a major or minor field of study, they do need to be guided by a student’s academic goals and plans for the future.

Hawes, who is pursuing a minor in computer science, says realizing that engineers could both design the physical aspects of an object, and program the electronics that make the invention work was a huge revelation for him.

Customizable, But Not High-Cost

He says the idea for the “ATLAS Arm” came to him after he saw a display at Maker Faire in New York City in 2014. He was attending what he calls “Comic Con for Engineers” to show off a wrist-mounted flamethrower he had built.

“An organization called e-NABLE had a 3-D-printed prosthetic hand for kids that have a palm but don’t have fingers. When they move their palm forward, it makes the fingers close,” Hawes says. “But there aren’t a tremendous number of kids who have that particular amputation; there are other amputations or disabilities that are more common.”

So Hawes wanted to build a similar prosthetic for someone who was missing a whole hand or wrist.

“I saw what they were doing with the physical component and I thought about what I could do with the electronic component,” he says. “I knew I had the ability to do it. I’ve done stuff like that before.”

To allow the amputee to control movement, Hawes’ prosthetic would need to employ an electronic mechanism that could read electromyography (EMG) signals from a person’s muscles.

“There’s this really cool board, and it only costs about $30, that plugs into an Arduino microcontroller and it can get a really good, definitive signal from your muscles,” Hawes says.

To read the rest of this article, published in UConn Today, please click here.