"Not Impossible" - Non-profit "printing" new limbs for those that lost theirs in the war...
A Californian non-profit has setup a lab for 3D-printing artificial limbs in Sudan so that the local community can supply the low-cost prosthetics to victims of war.
Not Impossible was founded by Mick Ebeling with the aim of helping create low-cost, open source, DIY solutions to healthcare problems. One of its first and most high profile successes was the creation of the EyeWriter, a crowdfunded eyetracking system developed by artists and engineers, originally to help a paralysed graffiti artist called Temp suffering from ALS (motor neurone disease) to paint again.
Like the EyeWriter, the 3D-printed limb project was inspired by the story of an individual, in this case, a 14-year-old boy called Daniel Omar living in Sudan's wartorn Nuba Mountains. In 2012 Omar told Time magazine how he had been tending to his family's cows in El Dar when government Antonovs flying overhead dropped a bomb. Omar lost both his hands. "Without hands, I can't do anything... If I could have died, I would have," he told Time.
"I read the Time article about him and had to help," explains Ebeling in a video depicting Omar's story and Project Daniel.
As with EyeWriter, Ebeling gathered together a team of leaders' in the field of 3D printing and prosthetics, each of whom share a passion for open source solutions. Key was the help of Richard Van As, who lost four fingers of his right hand in a woodworking accident. "Mainly it's the corporations in America who have the patents and the fingers that would restore it," Van As says, referring to the work being done with myolelectric prostheses and targeted nerve reinnervation. These, he realised, were "excessively expensive" -- so he decided to make his own. Robohand is a mechanical prosthetic 3D printed and custom fit using Orthoplastic.
Printrbot's Brook Drumm came onboard to supply the hardware expertise -- "I love the fact it gives some real purpose to what has for some amounted to a toy; to be involved in a project that has such intense purpose for an individual, how can you not jump in" -- while David Putrino, a physiotherapist with a PhD in the neuroscience of motor control, provided the "pragmatism" -- "[to make sure] it not only has the potential to work but actually is easy for the patients to use and comfortable for them to wear".
With a plan in place and the financial backing of Intel and Precipart, Ebeling finally travelled to meet Omar, now 16, in November 2013. "I came to Sudan with 3D printers, laptops, spools of plastic and the goal to print Daniel an arm."
Tom Catena, the American doctor who performed Omar's operation, helped with the adjustments and fittings at the lab, which has been setup in the local hospital. Within days, Omar had received the first version for his left arm. The functionality is fairly rudimentary, and miles off offering the kind of control a myoelectric limb could. But it has changed the teenager's life, enabling him to feed himself for the first time since the bombing.
Together with Omar, Ebeling recruited some locals whom they trained to continue the work after Not Impossible's departure. A week and a half after Ebeling left Sudan, four new arms had been 3D printed at a cost of $100 (£60) each.
"We're hopeful that other children and adults in other regions of Africa, as well as other continents around the globe, will utilise the power of this new technology for similar beginnings," said Mick Ebeling. "We believe Daniel's story will ignite a global campaign. The sharing of the prostheses' specifications, which Not Impossible will provide free and open source, will enable any person in need, anywhere on the planet, to use technology for its best purpose: restoring humanity."
Ebeling's Not Impossible cofounder Elliot V Kotek added: "We are on the precipice of a can-do maker community that is reaching critical mass. There is no shortage of knowledge, and we are linking the brightest technical minds and creative problem-solvers around the globe. Project Daniel is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg."
The key to Not Impossible's success so far has been this linking together of individuals that share a passion for the open source and maker community ethos. Separately, for instance, Robohand's founder has helped restore hand functionality to four children in South Africa. But in December students in the US built a Michigan four-year-old a new prosthetic hand using the open source kit, and the Robohand blog routinely features comments from professionals offering advice on how to improve the design, most recently from an independent biomedical design professional. Together with Ebeling, Van As and his design could reach communities under threat from landmines and bombings across the globe.
"[Not Impossible is] doing what I started doing, from the point of view of being told 'it's impossible, you can't do it, it's never been done,'" says Van As. "My drive there was to do it and prove a point in some aspects. Not Impossible Labs has the same mentality and I think they will drag this to wherever they can. And nothing will stop them."
In the Nuba Mountains and Sudan, fighting between rebel forces and the government has been unrelenting since 2011. In December more sightings of Antonovs taking to the skies and indiscriminately bombing villages were reported, and Sudanese human rights activist Zeinab Blandia from the Nuba Mountainswrote an open letter to President Obama urging for action to be taken over the "active systematic genocide" of the Sudanese people by their own government.
The need for initiatives such as Project Daniel, is unfortunately not going away anytime soon.