Following his session at the ‘Objets connectés, bien au-delà du gadget’ (Connected objects, much more than gadgets) event held at the NUMA digital space in Paris in mid-March, L’Atelier met up with Nicolas Huchet, who is running an ambitious project that consists of using an open source model to bring prosthetic devices within reach of all amputees.

An innovator? Yes, and a highly committed person as well. Nicolas Huchet originates from the industrial heartland of Rennes, the capital of Brittany in northwestern France. About ten years ago while working as a mechanical engineer he lost his right hand in a work accident. Following the accident he changed course several times, becoming an industrial designer, then turning to what had always been his passion: the world of sound. Today he is a qualified sound technician, but the ‘Robin Hood’ side of his nature has caught up with him. Pride in his home region and the innovative dynamism of Brittany has inspired him to come to the aid of people who, like him, have seen their lives turned upside down by an accident. Since February 2013 he has been the leader of the ‘Bionicohand’ project, plus working as a beta tester, and taking part in research at the ‘fablab’ in Rennes, ‘Rennes La Novosphère’.

The disruptive idea? Building a myoelectric prosthetic hand, i.e. a hand controlled by muscle sensors placed on the forearm, at low cost and in open source. This is what the Bionicohand* project is about. The prototype is based on open source technology, an Arduino microcontroller, standard components, and basically relies on collaborative work between fablabs and educational institutes. The project in fact stems from the digital design for a robotic hand built by Frenchman Gaël Langevin and offered on the Thingiverse website in open-source, which can be printed in 3D. His first prototypes were presented at the Digital Fair in Rennes, at the Geek Picnic in Moscow and at the Maker Faire in Rome where they won two prizes.

Why did he get interested in open source? “My right hand was amputated, and I was frustrated that I couldn’t afford the latest prosthesis, which was very expensive – between 40 and 80,000 euros.” Nicolas immediately thought about how collaborative work could change things and open source seemed to fit the bill. So he went to meet the people in charge of the Rennes fablab and suggested they help with his robotic hand project. The fablab people listened to him and took the idea very seriously. That is how the Bionicohand project got started. It is self-financing and owned by a team of a dozen volunteers, a point which Nicolas stresses because he sees open source as a means of making his prosthetic device affordable “to people who need it, basically, which means people all over the world.”

So how does this affect us? Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have stimulated this field of research and many innovations have appeared in the area of prosthetics. New myoelectric prostheses have been developed which enable a variety of physical movements, provide a wider range of possibilities and have a more aesthetic appearance. However, Nicolas explains: “On average these prostheses cost between 40,000 and 100,000 euros and unfortunately most people don’t get reimbursed for them.” Bionicohand should bring the price down to around 1,000 euros and with the aid of collective intelligence the initiative could help many of the amputees who cannot afford the more expensive prosthetic devices. Nicolas does not intend the project to remain within the borders of France; he wants the device to be used worldwide. He also points to the community spirit and openness that the project has generated. “We have contacts in Brazil, the United States, Italy, the UK and Russia. Of course, when you can actually meet people you make human contact, which helps to develop what is basically a humanitarian project, but we’re looking to expand Bionicohand internationally and offer the prosthetic device to countries where it’s needed, countries where there’s no national health cover, for people who lack financial resources.”

And what does the future hold? Building up an organisation. At the moment the project is backed only by the MyHumanKit organisation which Nicolas created to give the project legal status. So Bionicohand needs to raise funds and find more volunteers to continue the research work. “The prototype needs further development, we need to make the components much smaller, and the prosthesis must be made more robust and self-powered because at the moment it works on batteries. Our aim is to make it adaptable for everyone’s use and available in all sizes in the next two years.” Nicolas also has a second project underway. In parallel he is developing in conjunction with an engineering school in Rennes a prototype for a mechanical, body-powered hand with a view to creating a non-electronic prosthesis. And last but not least, efforts are needed to “forge a united network so that we can work remotely with different partners.”

*The Bionicohand team will be at the Maker Faire in San Francisco in May and then at the Maker Faire in Paris in June.