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College kids make robotic arms for children without real ones

Around the world, volunteers with 3-D printers are making limbs for children

Daphne Sashin | 3/9/2015, 6:38 a.m.
By the time Cynthia Falardeau read about Alex Pring, a little boy who got a battery-powered robotic arm last summer, ...
Albert Manero and a team of engineering students at University of Central Florida designed a prototype for an electronic arm. Six-year-old Alex Pring was the first recipient. Rather than profiting from the designs, the students uploaded them to the Internet for anyone to use. (Photo courtesy/University of Central Florida)

— By the time Cynthia Falardeau read about Alex Pring, a little boy who got a battery-powered robotic arm last summer, she had made peace with her son Wyatt's limb difference.

Her premature baby had been born with his right arm tangled in amniotic bands. At a week old, doctors amputated his dead forearm and hand. They were afraid his body would be become infected and he would die. Falardeau mourned her boy's missing arm for years but, in time, embraced her son as he was.

Wyatt also learned to adapt. They tried a couple of prosthetics when he was younger and each time the toddler abandoned the false limb within months.

"His main interest was to create a shocking response from onlookers by pulling it off in the grocery store," Falardeau wrote on CNN iReport. In truth, she had been more concerned about getting him therapy for his autism-related delays -- the limb difference was secondary.

So when a friend shared a story from the "Today Show" with Wyatt in mind, about a team of University of Central Florida (UCF) students and graduates that made an electronic arm for 6-year-old Pring using a three-dimensional printer on campus, Falardeau was defensive.

"He doesn't need this," she thought.

Her fifth-grader had a different reaction: "I want one of these robot arms!" Falardeau remembers Wyatt telling her and her husband. "I could ride a bike! I might even be able to paddle a kayak!"

There were other things the 12-year-old boy said he would do if he had two hands. A proper somersault. Clap with two hands. Dance with a pretty girl with one hand on her back and the other leading. Stuff she hadn't really thought about but he clearly had.

Falardeau got in touch with the Orlando students through E-Nable, an online volunteer organization started by Rochester Institute of Technology research scientist Jon Schull to match people who have 3-D printers with children in need of hands and arms. The organization creates and shares bionic arm designs for free download at EnablingTheFuture.org that can be assembled for as little as $20 to $50. Middle and high school student groups and Girl and Boy Scout troops are among those donating their time and materials to assemble limbs for kids and give them to recipients for free.

The UCF team, which operates a nonprofit called Limbitless Solutions, is special because it's the only group in the 3-D volunteer network making electronic arms. Most 3-D arms are mechanical, which presents a challenge for children without elbows. With mechanical arms, the child opens and closes their hand by bending their elbow. The students came up with the idea for an electronic arm with a muscle sensor that allows the child to open and close their hand by flexing their bicep.

"It's really just a step-by-step process of solving problems. The first problem we solved was: how do we make the hand move electronically? And then: how do we attach this arm to a child?" said sophomore Tyler Petresky. "It's just one problem after another we keep solving. That's what engineering is all about."