March 13, 2015

Northeastern Students Design “Farm Arm”

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From left, Gajewski, Walsh, Cohen, Waite, and Leydon show their farm arm capstone project. Photograph by Matthew Modoono, courtesy of Northeastern University.

A group of mechanical engineering students from Northeastern University created a prosthetic arm designed to help agricultural workers with amputations operate tractors. The device was for their senior capstone design project.

The prototype, dubbed the farm arm, features a prosthetic terminal device and set of adaptors that can be switched in and out to match the controls being operated. The design, the students said, eliminates the need for a grasping mechanism and can be universally used.

“Our design emulates where the hand would be at the point of interface with the tractor controls,” said Andrew Waite, one of five students comprising the capstone team. Farm accidents are two-and-a-half times more likely to end in amputation than any other injury, and 11 percent of all farm accidents involve amputations, according to the Farm Injury Resource Center. The students noted that, despite the high rate of amputation in the agricultural industry, prosthetic options often fall short in utility and durability. What’s more, workers in this industry are often geographically isolated, which makes fitting and training them for prostheses challenging, they said.

These factors inspired the students to design a solution: a prosthetic arm and adaptor that they said are robust, ergonomic, adaptable, and can be easily used to engage throttle levers, hydraulic levers, joysticks, and steering wheels.

The students—Waite, Jacob Cohen, Carly Gajewski, Jonathan Leydon, and Daniel Walsh—presented their design in December. Their prototype features an aluminum body, a titanium end piece, and 3D-printed adaptors. Now they are refining their design, assessing manufacturing options, and exploring different paths for taking their device to market.

To properly frame their design for end-users, the students established and maintained constant contact with several prosthetics experts, industry leaders, and organizations that work with farmers with amputations. Late in the project, this led to a key opportunity to test their device with a farmer in Maine, who had lost part of his right arm. He used the farm arm on his own tractor, and then provided feedback on what worked well and offered suggestions on how it could be improved.

“That’s when the project really came together,” Walsh said. “It provided a good opportunity for proof of concept and to validate our design.”

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