MecE 460 team takes home silver from international biomechanics conference

For the second year in a row, the Department of Mechanical Engineering has sent a team to the Summer Biomechanics, Bioengineering, and Biotransport Conference (SB3C). And for the second year in a row, our team has returned a winner.

This year’s team of Vincent Castonguey,-Siu, Dalen Mimeault, Pratik Shah, Craig Trischuk, and Heather Williams developed their second-place-winning exo-skeleton robotic hand for their MecE 460 Capstone project. Exo-skeleton robotic hands are used by people who, through some kind of injury, trauma or degradation, can no longer perform everyday tasks because of a loss of hand strength. The group’s design for the robotic hand is a departure from traditional designs for robotic hands, which are very uncomfortable.

“I was actually really inspired by my grandfather who is losing his hand strength and it’s really frustrating for him,” says Heather Williams, who has just graduated from the BSc program and will start her MSc this fall. Williams worked for three summers in the Bionic Limbs for Improved Natural Control (BLINC) lab where she worked with traditional exo-skeleton robotic hands. When the BLINC lab sponsored a MecE 460 project to develop a more comfortable robotic hand, she was eager that her team should work on the project.

Traditionally, the components of robotic exo-skeleton hands attach directly to the person’s hand or hands and can be very painful. To design their robotic hand, the team began with a glove made out of technical fabric with stretch and breathability. Then they re-designed the robotic components to sit on top of the glove. Although the team was designing for comfort, of course they had to make the components work as well. Their designs for the moving and robotic components are also novel.

“You always hear that you can’t push a rope,” says team member Vincent Castonguey-Siu. “Well, our design uses very strong wire that pushes through the components, over the knuckles. When it moves forward, it causes the finger to bend.”

The team had no further plans for their 460 project until Dr. Kajsa Duke told them about the SB3C conference and competition just one week before the abstract was due.

“I really appreciate that Dr. Duke told them about the conference,” says Dr. Mike Lipsett, who was the team’s 460 course instructor. “They did such great work and I’m pleased they could go somewhere with it.”

And go somewhere they did. The team’s road to success was paved with a little adventure. The SB3C conference and competition was held in Tucson, Arizona during the recent heat wave there, which caused the team some travel difficulties.

“The airline moved our flight ahead a day,” says Vincent. “But it was only going to be hotter the next day so we knew that flight wouldn’t go either. We changed our flight to Phoenix and took a Greyhound bus from there to Tucson.”

Heather and Vincent will both move on from this success to Master’s degrees in Biomechanical Engineering, Heather in the BLINC lab at the U of A and Vincent in Zurich, Switzerland. Other team members are going on to work experience before pursuing graduate education. The BLINC lab will continue to work with the team’s design as they develop improved robotic hands.

Congratulations again to everyone on the team!