IamA amputee student engineer, wearing the world’s most intelligent prosthetic limb, AMA!
In January 2010 I had to learn to walk again after losing a leg in a hit-and-run accident. I initially struggled with traditional prosthetic limbs that are difficult to control but in 2013 I got to trial the Linx limb, which uses robotics to act like a real human leg and I have since been involved with its development.
The Linx is the current winner of the Royal Academy of Engineering MacRobert Award. Getting involved with the team recognised as the UK’s best in innovation really tipped me towards a love of engineering and I am now an aerospace engineering student at Kingston University, UK, as well as part of its Rocket Propulsion Group.
Prosthetics are a really rewarding piece of engineering that can change people’s lives - as an amputee student, I wear shorts and am proud to be rocking a serious bit of titanium carbon fibre around campus. Alongside my studies, I am also undertaking placements in areas such as manufacturing and materials, where I am gaining lots of cross-sector experience to boost my graduate skills.
Proof 1: https://twitter.com/legless29/status/833383446022086658 Proof 2: https://www.theengineer.co.uk/inprog/ Proof 3: http://www.raeng.org.uk/grants-and-prizes/prizes-and-medals/other-awards/the-macrobert-award/2016-finalist-blatchford
I’ll be answering questions from 3pm until 6pm GMT, and look forward to hearing from you!
EDIT I'm starting to wrap up now, have really enjoyed answering your questions! Best question I've ever had is "how's your leg?" Still waiting for it to grow back!
EDIT That's it, thank you everyone for all your questions!
Yes I do - ranging from itches to electric shock-like pain - these were quite bad immediately after I lost my leg but have faded since.
It's strange and sometimes quite painful but you get used to it. I have been lucky as I know some people suffer with it a lot more.
It must be quite the annoyance to have an itch you literally can't scratch.
It definitely can be! It was worse when I first got the limb, but you figure out ways to deal with it, it's just background noise. I've found that if I scratch my prosthesis, it disappears - it tricks my brain into thinking it's gone!
Does the mirror trick that House M.D. uses in Episode "The Tyrant" work?
Or is it not something you've tried?
I haven't tried it but I have heard about it - if House is doing it, I clearly need to check it out ;)
Do you plan to use your Aerospace Engineering and Rocketry experience to craft a Rocket Propelled Prosthetic?
Do you mean like Ironman? If so, that would be brilliant! The laws of physics mean that would technically be possible, however, economics wouldn't allow it.
One thing I would love to do one day is build a model jet engine
I'm mostly interested how you mentally overcome and learned to live with such great loss?
I'm lucky in that I had great family support, I met lots of new people - other patients that I learnt to walk with, the physios that taught me to walk again. When I returned to college and went to University, I've always had positive experiences.
The opportunities that I have now may never have come to me had I not lost my leg.
Interesting, though not surprising. I imagine holding a human leg in your hands it would feel heavier than you expect.
So, my best friend lost his leg from an amputation in the hospital over a year ago. He and I have always dreamed since that he can get a cool robo-leg. How did you go about getting to trial the leg? What's a general way we can go about getting him a cool prosthesis?
First, you would need to get a functional prosthesis before getting a cool prosthesis! You want to make sure you can walk and live your life first, before thinking about looks. Although to be honest, all prosthetic legs look cool ;)
Here in the UK, if you can receive funding on the NHS for it, you can go through trials that way. Otherwise, you can buy them privately, and trial them before you buy.
Hope your friend gets his cool robo-leg soon!
Hi - awesome limb! how do you handle metal detectors etc at airports?
Thanks! Firstly, I walk through...
them come the beeps and my eye-rolling...
then come the swabs and further scanning. I've only ever had to actually remove it twice - once in Dubai and once in Germany.
What makes a good prosthetic vs. a bad one for you personally?
The socket - the interface between the residual limb and the prosthesis - is the most important part, for me anyway. It's like wearing a well-fitting pair of shoes, really!
Glad I saw this ama. I've been an amputee all my life and been using microprocessor knees for the past 15 years. I'm currently using Rheo 3. Anyways, my CPO will be fitting me with an experimental socket design that will exact fit the residual limb. I can't say much on it right now, but hopefully will be doing an IAmA about it. He will be the only provide in the US doing this currently.
Have you used any other microprocessor knees? If so, how does this compare? I have used C-Leg, Plie and Rheo 3. I tested a Genium and it was mind blowing!
I've not used any of the other micro processors but would very much like to see how they all feel. I've used all of Blatchford's ones though. I used a Hi-Fidelity socket which was developed in the US. I didn't get on with it because there was no seat and the outer wall of the socket was very low and as such I had less stability.
I'd love to know about this socket you'll be using and will tune into your AMA.
How heavy is it to move with?
To pick it up it feels quiet heavy but once attached to my residual limb (stump) the perception of weight is totally different. It then feels quite light to walk with.
Does wearing the prosthetic alleviate phantom limb pain?
No. Doesn't make it better or worse. BUT weirdly, when I get a phantom itch and I scratch my prosthetic knee the itch STOPS - the brain gets tricked into thinking an itch has been scratched!
If you tripped and landed on your prosthetic, do you think you'd feel pain in the phantom knee?
My wife has gone "ow" after stubbing the toe on her prosthetic
I've done that too! Someone said to me why are you saying ouch and I wasn't too sure. It was quite funny actually.
What's the most challenging aspect of being on a university campus as an amputee? Does the Linx help?
Some universities are based in rural areas and as such have terrain that includes hills and steep slopes - as an amputee this is always a potential difficulty. Standing in labs and workshops is also a consideration for an engineering student like me. With the Linx, it senses when I come to a standstill and locks up, allowing me to stand for longer, and also reduces pain that I'd get from the extra load I would otherwise put on my other limb.
At Kingston, I'm actually lucky that the campus is very flat, with lifts etc.
I'm unfamiliar with UK laws on these things, but I'm hoping you got to stick it to the piece of shit that hit you. I was involved in an accident last year where a pickup truck hit me, I was mostly fine (he was turning, so it was slow) but his insurance covered all of the checkups and such for the accident; I'm just hoping you got similar treatment.
Oh right, questions... You indicated you're studying aerospace, but got into engineering via your prosthetic; have you considered trying to engineer prosthetic limbs? That field seems to be getting a lot more interesting as 3D printing gets more advanced.
Also, you called it "the world's most intelligent prosthetic limb" so can I ask your leg questions too?
Thank you for the solidarity! I was very well looked after :)
I have definitely considered engineering prosthetics - I actually work with Blatchford, the guys that manufacture the Linx. I am involved in testing and get to see my feedback improve the leg. Re 3D printing - it's already used in the manufacture of prosthetic limbs and Blatchford use it on a daily basis.
Please do ask my leg questions, I reckon it's smarter than me ;) On a serious note though, it's actually the most 'intelligent' as the Linx ankle talks to the knee at a rate of 400 messages per second.
Have you played the Deus Ex games? If so, what do you think the future holds for people who wants to amputate fully functional limbs for bionic ones?
I haven't played them myself but have heard of them. If bionic limbs do ever get to the point where they are better than natural ones then maybe people will want to replace their functional limbs - that would be an issue that will have to be debated when it arises.
In terms of bionic limbs or body augmentation - people are already going beyond the functional prosthetic. Some people want them looking cooler - these guys do stuff including some very artistic design, well beyond functional requirements:
since it has bluetooth, have you ever worried that your limb might get hacked?
No, never worried about it! If anyone hacks into it, it's such a niche piece of software what would they do with it? The only people that would do damage are my enemies!
Do you think intelligent prosthetics are a more viable solution than stem cell lattice and regrowth?
Right now, as medical research stands, yes. As in, we haven't yet seen them in humans as of yet as far as I know. The complexity of the human body means stem cells working at this level is probably years off. And the strides that prosthetics have made in the meantime mean I can live a full life, with no barriers.
Was the person who hit you ever caught?
Yep, he was caught.
If you could customise your Linx limb in any way what would you do?
I would make sure there was no paintwork and you could see all the carbon fibre - the look of that is really cool, especially for an engineering geek like me!
What happened to the dog??
Haven't seen him in years, but he wasn't hurt!
What types of engineers were involved in the development/construction of the leg?
Mechanical, electronic, design, software - it's really multi-disciplinary. Especially on the software side, the Linx uses an app to set speed boundaries, how free it feels when you walk, and knee resistance when you walk down stairs/slopes, all when it is first fitted. People don't realise the varieties of specialties involved!
Does wearing a prosthetic hurt the limb it's attached to at all? Whenever I see them I always wonder if the friction or force between the two would begin to hurt?
Yes it does. The top edge of the socket, occasionally due to friction cutting or rubbing the skin off, causes pain. It's like wearing a good pair of shoes.
You get niggles every day, and you learn how to manage them. If they get worse, then it's potentially something to do with the fit, so it needs further investigation. You have to accept that it's part and parcel of losing a limb, you've just got to deal with it.
Can't you use something like a moisturiser?
Yeah, I've used vaseline, a nappy rash cream....the problem is the lubrication doesn't last all day. You just deal with it.
How has this leg situation impacted your intimate life?
It hasn't ;)
Do you ever use your leg to start conversations in bars with pretty people?
It's a brilliant ice breaker :)
You do realize its his leg not his penis that's the prosthetic?
How does the robo-leg receive power? Battery Pack? Would be cool if it recharged it self with kinetic servos!
It runs on a lithium ion battery, which I charge approx. every 3-4 days. I agree, kinetic servos would be cool!
Have you ever forgotten to charge your leg?
I have forgotten a few times. It's annoying because it goes into safe mode not allowing you to walk. If that happens I just sit by a plug socket for an hour or so! Failing that I can switch to a fully charged leg I keep in the boot of my car just incase. I've got a few solutions to that issue.
It's interesting because we are charging so many devices these days that having the Linx, which combines a knee and a foot, means I'm not charging a separate knee and a foot. The Linx has one charge port which means one less device I need to forget to charge!
In your picture, why are you wearing two different kinds of shoes?
Those are Air Max 1 ACGs. They come with two different coloured laces out of the box, as well as the option for them to be both white. I have approx. 50 pairs of trainers! I went through a phase of buying lots of limited edition trainers after I lost my leg because it helped me cope with people looking at me when I was out and about.
Ohh ok! I thought maybe you wore a certain shoe on the prosthetic leg for some specific reason. Sick beard, by the way.
Hi, thank you for doing this AMA. Do you notice you're prosthetic leg when doing everyday activities? Crossing legs, showering, etc. Also, do you feel the weight of the leg when you do some physical activity such as jumping?
No, not usually - but crossing legs, I don't usually, there's a big carbon socket in the way! Showering yes, you've got to take it off otherwise you'll ruin the electronics.
Jumping, I just don't do it. It overloads the other knee hugely, so I avoid those activities if I can, otherwise I'll be back in a wheelchair by the time I'm 40!
Tbh, you've mentioned the only activities where I do notice it. Other than that, it's just a leg, part of my body.
How does your prosthetic limb respond to your brain commands ? Can you move it voluntarily ? What makes you say that its the most intelligent prosthetic limb ? Thanks in advance
No it doesn't, it's a passive device. It reacts to what the sensors in it see. I use my brain to make my stump move, and then the limb reacts based on the terrain it's on, the load on the front/back of the leg amongst other things.
It's the most intelligent prosthetic because it's the only limb available on the market; as it's a limb it has to deal with two joints and communicate between the two.
What (if anything) is something you feel your prosthetic / prosthetics in general havn't quite managed just yet? Any aspects in particular that you feel there's room for significant improvement as technology advances?
The main thing is having a lot of different legs for different activities. Developing one that does everything is the next step. Problems like waterproofing - a big hurdle - need to be solved; these are massive steps that will make a huge difference.
How far along is this prosthesis in development? I work with a lot of amputees and seems the old SACH foot is still pretty much the standard prosthesis dealt out by the different prosthetics companies. How far are we away from having a more intelligently designed prosthesis becoming the norm, rather than the exception?
It's been released already :) I wore it at the unveiling to industry, was kind of like a car show, but for prosthetics!
You could write a whole book on how far these are away from being the norm, there's so many different factors involved.
I just got my bachelor's in biomedical engineering last year and am going for my masters
I also want to work with prosthetics. Any advice you have for me to get myself there?
Thanks you for the AMA :)
You need to approach companies and say you're interested. That is the first step. Just put yourself out there! I spoke to The Engineer about what I did, you can read a bit more here :) https://www.theengineer.co.uk/inprog/
Do you ever want to upgrade?
Well I'm helping Blatchford upgrade their equipment; I want to help them build better limbs.
In a few years it would be nice to have a limb that does everything. I have four legs at home - a swimming leg, cycling leg... I have legs for different activities. Having one leg that does everything would be perfect.
What sort of rocket propulsion do you work on - is it getting satellites into space, or for jet planes, or are there some more obscure uses for rockets that we might not have heard of?
The Kingston Uni Rocket Propulsion Group work on a variety of different rocket engines, one of which is a bi-propellant (uses liquid oxygen and liquid fuel) with a unique fuel injection system that could reduces the cost of building a rocket and thereby reduces the cost of getting a satellite into space.
Check out some cool stuff here https://twitter.com/kurpgrockets?lang=en
So how far has the technology for limbs come? How far off do you think it is that well be able to wire these things directly into the nervous system? And how long till the technology on your leg becomes widely available? Will I one day be able to live my dream of being a human Dr. Octopus with extra cyborg limbs?
From the purely mechanical to the mechatronic (addition of electronics and intelligence) was the biggest recent development. The Linx compared to other purely mechanical and microprocessor prosthetics, ensures the knee and ankle talk to each other making a massive difference to users in terms of terrain that can be tackled and helping keep the load off the other limb.
Direct wiring into the nervous system is a far away reality in my opinion - there are things currently indirectly connected (which use muscle signals produced by the contractions) meaning we are potentially making steps in the right direction. Perhaps then your Dr Octopus dream will one day come true!
How do you shower? :p
I use my waterproof limb, which is not the Linx. I've lost my leg, but now I've got more than I started with!
Have u seen that rock climbers new leg? What do u think of it ?
Do you mean Hugh Herr? His legs have powered ankles which mean he can move more efficiently. These are different to mine, but it's amazing to see someone turn their adversity into amazing technology and highlights just how engineering provides solutions to society's problems. The engineering is brilliant.
Ever since a young age I have always been interested in prosthetic limbs and currently considering it as a career choice to study physics and work on prosthetics (A Levels, maths , further maths, physics and chem). Anyways, what's your favourite sandwich? :)
If you’re interested in engineering, approach universities outside of their open days. You want to go and see them in action, teaching those practical skills – much more useful than a general open day. Also approach companies – they want to see keen young people who sell themselves and are generally very hospitable when it comes to showcasing their work. What’s the worst that could happen? You might get told no, but be brave, be pro-active and create your own opportunities!
Favourite sandwich? Mate, I love all food....anything salami, Italian!
Do you ever have phantom limb symptoms?
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