University of Queensland student Nat Marshall is developing a wearable device that will control robotic prosthetics with artificial intelligence (AI).
The engineering and physics major wants to smooth out the current user experience for people with upper-limb difference.
AI refers to a computer that can imitate a human mind by learning from experience and practice to recognise objects, solve problems or make decisions.
Using people with fully functional upper limbs, Mr Marshall’s device will be trained to understand how muscles and tendons inform hand movements.
The device will then be transferred to a person with an upper-limb deficit and, using its AI, best guess the movements they are trying to perform.
He has taken current industry standards to the next level by incorporating more electrodes into his device, meaning it can learn more movements and give wearers the ability to use fine motor skills.
Current technology features between eight and 16 electrodes, whereas Mr Marshall’s design has 256.
“With more electrodes, you can imagine [an object] as an image, and you have more pixels in that image,” he said.
Mr Marshall been working with teenager Connor Wyvill, who was born without most of his left arm.
“It’s not been easy, but once you get the hang of [doing] something, then you get that confidence boost,” Connor said.
“We’ve been doing some testing on some of the stuff he’s making to see how it’s going, what’s working, what’s not working.
The programming associated with current robotic prosthetics is difficult to use.
Connor’s mum Amanda said prosthetics could be time-consuming to learn and they were not actually useful.
“The prosthetics that he has used in the past have been so heavy, he hurt himself, so then he didn’t want to use them again,” Ms Wyvill said.
“They didn’t do anything; there was a thumb bit that you physically had to touch for it to open.”
Prosthetics can also cost upwards of $150,000.
“Because, as I said, they’re expensive. And for the average person it’s not affordable.”
Mr Marshall would also like the devices to be more affordable for end users.
“A lot of that cost comes from the medical certification and the whole commercialisation process for medical devices,” he said.
“So we’re hoping to initially start out just as a consumer and commercial product and develop all the technology through that strain.
“Then that’ll reduce the cost when it transfers over to the medical space.”
Mr Marshall has many goals for his invention, including venturing into the virtual reality (VR) realm.
“From here the immediate target is a VR application, because that might be quite valuable to someone who’s lost a limb, just to see how much function they could get from a device using our wearables,” he said.
He also hopes to connect with manufacturers of robotic prosthetics.
“Our diagnostic device can be worked in operation with some of the current robotic prosthetics on the market,” he said.
“That’s a few years down the track from now [and] requires going down the medical-certification pathway.
“I would need to have clinical trials performed and validate that my device can work in conjunction with these other devices to provide a better outcome for the patient.”
Mr Marshall impressed judges at last year’s Bionics Queensland Challenge, winning $5,000 towards building his prototype.
His mentor and Bionics Queensland CEO, Robyn Stokes, said the industry needed innovative solutions like Mr Marshall’s.
“It’s absolutely life changing if you can find the next-level treatment that will extend the functionality of those people for much longer,” Dr Stokes said.