Students design $25 prosthetic arm created with bike pump, balloon and sugar

All that was needed for a six-person team to create a prosthetic arm capable of gripping, picking up and releasing objects was a bike pump, some sugar and a balloon.

University of Calgary students Tyler Anker, Joel Neumann, Rohan Antony, Peter Hillman, Shalese Baxandall and Amanda Mackey invented what they're calling the "Calgary Arm" for the Schulich School of Engineering's Capstone Design Fair.

"The hope is that with really easily accessible materials, anyone within a developing nation could theoretically come up with their own materials and make their own prosthetic," Anker told the Calgary Eyeopener. "Hopefully it can help someone out."

How it works

At the end of the "arm" — which is an empty one-litre pop bottle with the bottom cut out of it — there's a balloon filled with sugar.

"When there's no vacuum applied to it, it's soft, so it can deform around any object," said Neumann.

Attached to the balloon is a bike pump that's been reversed, so it acts as a vacuum rather than a pump. The pump operates by pressing down on a loop of rope with your foot

"When you apply the vacuum, it [the balloon] gets really hard, and then it can pick up the object," he said. "As long as you can keep the vacuum on, the object is being grasped."

It's called a jamming gripper, and is often used in robotics.

"It's so diverse, it can pick up different textured shapes and different sized shapes," Neumann said. 

The cost: $25.


Like any invention, the "Calgary Arm" has its flaws.

"In testing, the balloon really stretches out if you put a lot of weight on it," Anker said. "After a kilogram or two, you're probably not going to get a lot of good out of it."

It's also difficult to hold things for longer than 15 minutes, he added.

Anker, Neumann and the team are hoping to improve on the design and eventually send it out to those who may benefit from the device. 

The "Calgary Arm" will be on display along with other U of C engineering projects at the Capstone Design Fair.

It was held on Monday afternoon at the Olympic Oval.

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With files from the Calgary Eyeopener

Clarification : A previous version of this story said Tyler Anker and Joel Neumann invented the "Calgary Arm." They were part of a six-person team that worked on the project. (Apr 03, 2017 1:32 PM)