Michal Prywata was showing a heart monitor device he created at a Ryerson University engineering open house in 2009, and one person in the crowd stood out. “A lot of people were asking questions,” Prywata says. “But there was this one guy asking very specific questions that only someone who knows what they are talking about would ask.”
That guy was Thiago Caires, and the two started working together shortly thereafter. They founded Bionik Laboratories — housed at Ryerson’s Digital Media Zone, a workplace for young entrepreneurs — and have a number of projects in the works, including the Artificial Muscle-Operated Arm (AMO). While the AMO Arm has already won a number of awards, the Ontario Engineering Competition and the Canadian Engineering Competition being two examples, it is not yet available for purchase. So what’s all the excitement about?
Currently, the only comparable device that exists requires invasive muscle re-innervation surgery that is not performed in Canada or covered by provincial health plans. It also reportedly costs $300,000, though there is no set price. The AMO Arm’s inventors are hoping for something more along the lines of $15,000, which is at the upper end of the range for a simple hook prosthesis covered by insurance plans. “What we wanted to do is something that is just as functional or more functional as the arm developed from the surgery,” says Prywata. “But external.”
Part of the appeal of the AMO Arm is the fact that it might be useful for those with full-arm amputations in a way that current artificial limbs are not. If you have a partial arm amputation, you can still send signals to the brain. “Finding a functional artificial limb is more difficult the higher the amputation,” says Karen Valley, Director of the National Amputee Centre with The War Amps.
Valley says that she’s interested in the AMO Arm because it will provide more options for those with amputations. It might also open new doors in the workplace. “Computers are the great equalizers,” she says. “It levels the playing field for (amputees).”
The War Amps provides up-to-date and accurate information about prostheses to Canadian amputees, as well as financial assistance when it comes to purchasing artificial limbs. Valley can’t say for sure if the AMO Arm would be a limb they would cover, but she’s been following its development and is hopeful. “I would be interested in checking (the AMO Arm) out,” says Valley, an amputee who currently uses a myoelectric device. “I would have to see if it would benefit me.”
Giving more limb options to an amputee means offering a greater scope of career choice.
Every job has different requirements and environments, and an amputee often has to find ways to adapt to those environments. Valley thinks the AMO Arm could have an impact on the types of jobs many with amputations are physically capable of undertaking.
But, even then, she’s quick to point out the resilience of the community. “Amputees seem to be able to find something to work for them if they want to do a certain activity,” she says. “If it is the right (limb) for you, you will use it, despite some of the limitations — aesthetics or weight.”
The AMO Arm might not be the prettiest arm out there — Valley notes that the accompanying headpiece might be a turn-off for some — but its functionality is pretty inspiring. The technology can allow the wearer to close the hand, rotate the wrist, and lift the arm up to shoulder level. It can even lift 200 pounds, though the inventors would recommend sticking to around 50. It will offer new options when compared to the other devices in its price range. “If someone needs their entire arm and all they have is a hook, how much can they do, no matter what job it is?” Prywata asks. “Maybe they can hold a notebook with one hand and write with the other, but that’s about it.”
Using the AMO Arm, a person could easily handle fragile and sensitive objects. Right now, myoelectric arms allow people to differentiate between grips, but the technology does not. Prywata and Caires have invented a technology to sense different materials that is designed for the mechanical device itself. “Let’s say you are about to pick up an egg, it will sense what material it is,” Prywata says. “It will set a maximum pressure the arm will exert on that object, so you won’t crush the egg.”
Unless you want to a be baker or a professional heckler, eggs aren’t likely to fit into your daily work life, but it is easy to think of other uses for an arm that can sense materials and adjust its grip accordingly. Think of a scientist trying to adjust glass slides on his microscope, or an office manager trying to screw in a light bulb while holding the old bulb at the same time. Those are not things a person can do with one arm.
In addition to grip and the range of movement, the AMO Arm also provides an added level of efficiency. “Even if you are working construction and you want to drill something to a wall, you could easily hold the drill and adjust whatever you need to on the wall,” Prywata says. “You could hold the screw and do whatever you need to do.” Not only will the technology benefit employees, but it might also decrease some of the misconceptions that persist about what an amputee can and cannot accomplish at work.
“The way we chose rehabilitation (as our field) was by looking at gaps in technology,” says Prywata, who hopes the AMO Arm will be available within the next two years. “Prosthetics had the problem of being very simple or very expensive. There was nothing in between.” And while there’s still nothing in between, there’s something on the way.