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Human Augmentation and Arduino Technologies Bruce Byfield

Arduino single board microcontrollers were originally designed for students and do-it-yourselfers (DIYers) in the early years of the millennium. Increasingly, however, they are finding their way into commercial products. This trend is especially evident in the fields of prosthetics and human augmentation, where they have become one of the standard components. In fact, the use of Arduino technologies has become so common that well-established manufacturers of microcontrollers such as Microchip Technology and its subsidiary Atmel include a growing list of Arduino-based or Arduino compatible hardware among their products.

Arduino technologies have the advantage of offering a complete solution, including:

  • An easy-to-use yet sophisticated programming language (sometimes called Arduino C) that can be extended through plugins and C++ libraries, and includes a command for flashing a device's firmware via a USB port on any computer running Linux, OSX, or Windows.
  • An integrated development environment (IDE) that can be extended with plugins.
  • A large and active community of both volunteers and salaried employees drawn from many walks of life that offer both and suggested modifications.
  • Open source software and hardware, including numerous plans and specifications released under a Creative Commons license, all which can significantly reduce development and time to market.

In addition to these advantages, Arduino boards like the widely employed Arduino Mega 2560 Revision 3 Microcontroller Board are low in cost. Based on Microchip’s Atmel ATmega2560 8-bit microcontroller (MCU), the Mega 2560 is designed for complex projects. With 54 digital I/O pins, 16 analog inputs and a larger space for your sketch it is the recommended board for 3D printers and robotics projects. This allows custom parts to be produced inexpensively. At a conservative estimate, manufacturing a device made with Arduino Technologies can often cost under a tenth of those manufactured under traditional proprietary standards. For example, ALICE, a project that claims to be developing the first open source robotic exoskeleton, expects to sell its products for under $1,000, while a comparable product produced by a proprietary company costs approximately eighty times as much. Even allowing for cost overruns, this price difference makes Arduino-based prosthetics affordable for those with low incomes or for war-ravaged developing countries. Just as importantly, the financial barriers for contributing to development have been significantly lowered.

Given these advantages, no one should be surprised that Arduino-based prosthetics and devices for human augmentation are being produced at all levels of experience and expertise. At the simplest level, hobbyist sites offer prosthetic pen-holders and sensors for heat and touch, while a Kickstarter project was recently funded to produce a kit from which students can affordably build a robotic exoskeleton. Similarly, the Arduino main site mentions an assistive exoskeleton arm build from a windshield wiper motor and controlled by an Arduino board that cost approximately $100 to build. Other such projects can be found on Instructables.com, a site on which teachers post lesson plans and class projects, as well as Hackaday.io, a site for DIYers. Such projects would have been unimaginable a decade ago before Arduino technologies had proved themselves.

At a commercial level, Arduino-based devices are even more sophisticated. Besides the expected prosthetics for amputated limbs and the development of exoskeletons, efforts are branching out in more exotic directions. Albert Manero, a guest at Penguincon 2015, a combination science fiction and technology conference, has released open source plans for myo-electrics—systems that use sensors to send signals to and from a user's remaining musculature. As an alternative, the Arduino Prosthesis is an external Brain Control Interface (BCI) that allows uses to communicate with prosthetics using an EEG worn as a headset or headband. In addition, for over five years, Gershon Dublon & Joseph A. Paradiso of the MIT Media Lab have been developing Tongueduino, a grid of electrodes attached to the tongue that provides spatial and directional data to the blind.

At all levels, much of the effort to develop Arduino-based prosthetics and human augmentation centers on e-Nable. e-Nable started in 2011, when founder Ivan Owen developed a functional puppet hand to wear to a cyberpunk convention and posted a video showing the process of building the hand online. The video brought responses from disabled people asking for similar devices for themselves. From there, e-Nable developed into a Google group and finally a project. Today, e-Nable includes 7,000 members who together have developed some 2,000 devices, the majority of which are built on Arduino-technologies. As well as the usual forums, the site includes schematics, blogs and articles on featured projects, lists of resources, and fund-raising projects for chapters around the world. e-Nable's About Page describes its members as "makers, tinkerers, artists, designers, humanitarians, teachers, parents, children, engineers, occupational therapists, medical professionals, philanthropists, inventors and everyday people"—a list that suggests just how diverse the use of open source technologies, especially Arduino, has become.

The development of Arduino-based prosthetics and devices for human augmentation is just starting to show results. Many projects have yet to have their efforts medically certified, although the lack does not stop them from being used. No doubt some of the efforts in these fields will fail, but, because they are open source, none of their efforts will be lost, and anything useful in them can be picked up by others. But, no matter what happens, Arduino technologies have already heavily influenced these fields, and are likely to continue to do so for years to come.



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Bruce ByfieldBruce Byfield is a freelance journalist specializing in free and open source software, and is author of Designing with LibreOffice. Bruce has been a contributing editor at Linux.com and Maximum Linux, and has been published many times in well-known publications, including Datamation, Linux Journal, LinuxPlanet, The Linux Developer Network, Slashdot, and LWN, among others. Bruce can be reached at bbyfield@axion.net.




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