This Engineer Created an Affordable Bionic Hand in His Spare Time

G.E. engineer Lyman Connor's Bionic Hand Project aims to provide functional electronic prostheses for a fraction of the cost of high-end options.

In October 2013, General Electric engineer Lyman Connor met a boy on an elevator who would radically impact his discretionary time for the next three years.

Connor was in recovery from a serious bicycle accident - nine-skull-fractures serious - when he found himself in a hospital elevator with a young boy. Playfully comparing injuries, Connor found out that the boy had lost a hand and that his family couldn't afford to buy him a high-end electronic prosthesis.

When Connor was finally discharged from the hospital, he pledged to design an affordable bionic hand for that kid and others like him. An inveterate tinkerer, he started experimenting in his home workshop, discovered the advantages of 3-D printing, and hasn't stopped since.

"A full bionic hand was anywhere from $50,000 to $70,000, and I was thinking I could make something more affordable," Connor says in the project page demo video.

Three years later, Connor is close to realizing his vision with the Bionic Hand Project, which includes a nonprofit initiative that aims to provide advanced prostheses to needy patients at a low cost. He's also founded a for-profit arm, so to speak, through which he hopes to sell his technology to other companies designing prostheses. In November, Connor moved operations from his home workshop to a commercial space in Roanoke, Virginia.

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Connor's current bionic hand model, the Mano-matic, uses off-the-shelf components and design elements from the open-source Robohand project, a South African initiative in which engineers collaborate on low-cost prosthetic solutions.

The Mano-matic includes a cuff that reads electrical impulses on the forearm, similar to how a electroencephalogram (EEG) device reads electrical activity through the scalp. Those impulses are wirelessly beamed to a microprocessor and translated into inputs for the prosthetic hand itself. This basic open-and-close system is good enough that users can easily grasp most everyday objects, a cup of water, say.

But the bionic hand is also capable of multiple pre-programmed gestures. A system of RFID tags triggers the hand to assume particular grips and shapes depending on the circumstance. An RFID tag on a key ring could communicate with the bionic hand whenever the user reaches for a particular set of keys. The hand would then assume a grip that allowed the user to turn a key into a lock or ignition.

The Mano-matic is the result of thousands of hours of tinkering on nights and weekends, starting when Connor came back from the hospital.

"Basically, I started out with a mechanical hand and built on that multiple iterations, multiple versions, with the end result being a fully-functional bionic hand," Connor explains in the video.

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The rapidly improving technology of 3-D printing is a critical part of the low-cost solution that Connor has developed. That's because the parts of the hand most likely to wear out over time can be replaced via printing. If a particular surface is getting worn thin, or a component breaks, users can just print out their own replacement part.

Connor is currently looking to partner with donors and investors to further fund the Bionic Hand Project. While there's no word yet on pricing, he's taking requests at the project website.

Connor is also hoping to track down that kid in the elevator. He never did get a name.

"It would be great to meet the young man again," Connor says in a G.E. promotional video on his work. "So if you do by chance see this message, please contact me."

You can keep up with Conner on the Bionic Hand Project blog.