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domingo, 12 de julio 2020
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Bionic limb made in Medellín will bring hope to many

By Carlos Olimpo Restrepo Suescún

e-NABLE, a Medellin based non-profit organization has designed an open-source, 3D printed bionic arm using low-cost, efficient materials. This groundbreaking development was designed in collaboration with a team of students and graduates from the UdeA undergraduate degree in Engineering.

On March 16, 2015, Bryan García was adjusting an air antenna to improve his TV signal strength. Thirteen hours later he woke up at the hospital to the news that his right hand would be amputated due to the damage caused by a lightning strike that hit him while manipulating the outdoor antenna.

During his recovery, Bryan used a prosthesis supplied by his health insurance. "It was quite heavy and uncomfortable, and it also made my stump hurt", he says. He then switched to a lighter but less practical prosthesis, which was donated by a foundation.


e-Nable’s bionic arm. Photograph by e-NABLE

“One day I received a call from the mayor’s office of my town, and they asked me if I wanted to participate in testing of a newly developed prosthesis. It was then that I had the opportunity to meet both Adam and e-NABLE”, Bryan says. e-NABLE is a non-profit organization founded by Adam Armfield (an Australian based in Medellín), with the support from Australian volunteers and a team of UdeA engineering students.

For several months, Bryan visited e-NABLE’s headquarters in order to participate in further testing. Almost a year later, Esteban Rojas, a bioengineer at Universidad de Antioquia with a keen interest in biomechanics and amputee rehabilitation, joined the team of eleven researchers and students - mostly volunteers from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Spain and Colombia – responsible for the project development.

“The purpose was to develop a new prosthesis. In 2018 we started working on what would later become a robotic arm designed to be used by people with above-elbow amputations”, Rojas says.

Based on the problems detected in the initial tests and the information provided by Bryan, the team focused on improving the prosthesis design, which resulted in the successful development of the prosthesis that Bryan uses in his daily life. “We aim to help those who find it difficult to use traditional prostheses since this device is designed to be used in an easy and comfortable way. The idea is to reach more people in need of this type of aid,” he said.

Three volunteers and a UdeA Bioengineering intern also contributed to this development. “We made them aware of the project so that they could replicate the design with the existing documentation since our purpose was to develop an open-source prosthesis. That is, that anyone become capable of designing and assembling the device using simple materials. As expected, they were able to do so and therefore we could move forward with the development,” the researcher said.  

Although one of the main objectives of e-NABLE is to provide support to landmine victims, Bryan García, a 19-year-old undergraduate student, has become the first Colombian to use the robotic limb. "I was chosen to use the device due to serious elbow injury. This prosthesis is much better than the first one I used since I don't have to make a lot of effort or use my other hand to make it move," says Bryan.

Although Bryan claims that he still misses the missing limb, he says the prosthesis has helped him recover part of the skills that, at times, he believed lost forever.

Parts of the bionic arm

Forearm. This piece is in contact with the user’s limb and consists of two servo motors - which provide and increase energy when required – and two EMG sensors.

Battery box / switches. They are located between the lower end of the forearm and the tendon module. It consists of two AAA batteries    (preferably rechargeable) and two switches that are connected to the circuit board.

Arm. It contains nylon-based tendons that connect the servo motors with the fingers, as well as the circuit board and the motion sensors.

Hand. It consists of nylon strings and a fingerboard. It has articulated fingers with tips made of soft, sticky gel to improve grip.    

Electronic sensors. Two electronic sensors connected to the forearm record the electrical activity of the muscles. One sensor is installed in the biceps and the other one is connected to the forearm muscle. They are located on the outside of the device and are directly connected to the circuit board that transforms the muscle's biological signal into an electrical signal to turn on the servomotors.

Two grip systems

e-NABLE’s bionic arm allows users to perform 2 different types of grips:

One is aimed at holding small items, such as a pencil and tools like a screwdriver; and the other, more powerful, is intended for more bulky and heavy elements, such as glass cups and bottles.

In May 2019, Bryan continued to attend the testing of the open-source robotic arm

In both cases, the power of the grip is determined by the user through the signals sent from his muscles to the sensors attached to the stump, which, in turn, activate the servomotors that control the bionic arm.

To learn more about the robotic arm please visit e-NABLE’s website


Translation by José López M.

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