You may have seen this video featuring Robert Downey Jr. making the rounds on the Internet and morning talk shows back in March. In it, the actor, who plays “Tony Stark” (aka “Iron Man”) in Marvel’s Avengers franchise, presents one of the character’s robotic arms to a young boy missing his right arm. The arm was made possible by Limbitless Solutions, a nonprofit headed up by a mechanical engineer.
But what you don’t see in the video is one of the key ingredients making the arm work.
It’s a muscle sensor used in the arm, and it was designed by Brian Kaminski, a 2006 biomedical engineering graduate of NC State.
“The brain sends messages to your muscle to start flexing,” says Kaminski, the founder and owner of the Raleigh-based bionic company Advancer Technologies. “The sensor takes that message and interprets it to make the motion.”
Kaminski says the idea for the sensor arose while he was working on his senior design project at NC State. He was working on a robotic glove that could be used by recovering stroke patients, but found that he couldn’t just buy a muscle sensor off of the shelf. “You had to design it from the ground up,” he says. “They are made for hospitals for medical use, but not for research.”
Advancer has been a company for five years, and the sensor in the arm is the third generation of the design. Because he sells his sensors through a distributor, Kaminski was initially not aware that Limbitless was using his sensor. He learned about it from the mother of the boy featured in the video, who called to thank Kaminski for designing the sensor. “She told me, ‘We’re going to be on Today. You should watch,” Kaminski says laughing.
Now that Kaminski knows, he’s partnering with Limbitless on a Kickstarter campaign aimed at getting more affordable prosthetic limbs to children who need them. “Prosthetics cost usually more than $10,000,” he says. “Insurance won’t pay for them because the kids grow so fast and can outgrow the prosthetic.”
But Kaminski says there are other purposes for his sensor, one of which is to spark a love of science in children. So he’s been releasing tutorials on Advancer’s website that allow children to see how to design the claws of superhero and X-Men staple Wolverine or an Iron Man glove.
“I want students to look at it and build it,” he says. “My goal is to get kids engaged but to teach them engineering at the same time.”