These Makers are using 3D printing and Arduino to ‘re-enable’ the disabled


Two brothers with advanced muscular dystrophy are using the powers of the Maker Movement to ‘re-enable’ themselves and others. 


Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD) is a form of muscular dystrophy that is caused by a defective gene for dystrophin (a protein in the muscles). Dystrophin is responsible for connecting the cytoskeleton of each muscle fiber to the underlying basal lamina, through a protein complex containing many subunits. The absence of this protein permits excess calcium to penetrate the sarcolemma (the cell membrane). Typically, the disease will cause proximal muscle weakness of the legs and pelvis first, followed by the arms, neck, and other areas not long after.

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Nick and Chris Fryer are two Australian twins affected by DMD, who have harnessed the powers of Maker Movement to combat the issues that they often deal with on a regular basis. The brothers were diagnosed at the age of eight, and doctors didn’t expect them to live past the age of 21. Now 37, they are the oldest people living with DMD in Australia — though they do require the use of ventilators controlled by movements of their mouths and fingertips 24/7.

In an effort to improve their daily productivity, the Fyers have devised a number of projects using 3D printing. These creations have ranged from robots and drones to wheelchair accessories and computer aids, among many other gadgets. One in particular is Nick’s Bonsai Bot prototype, which was built with the help of Peter McKenzie.

(Source: ABC News)

(Source: ABC News)

Designed from scratch, the robot employs several 3D-printed and laser cut parts, an Arduino Mega (ATmega2560), a motor driver shield and an XBee S1 module linked with another that is plugged into a PC. This enables the rover to be driven from the computer using a C# application that Nick wrote himself. Small 3D-printed finger devices fixed to the twins’ desk allow for proper control, while fixtures on their wheelchairs aid muscle support. The system uses the Arduino Command Messenger Library to talk to the Mega sending serial commands using the paired XBee units. Video is then transmitted via an IP — although its creators do have plans for a more advanced system in the future.

“It is very much a prototype but it does work well enough to chase the dogs around and scare small children. On the to-do list is to develop a single program that does it all without having a browser window open in the background. It would also be good to have a system that uses Wi-Fi as that is far more ubiquitous than XBees,” Nick adds. “If it is to be used as a telepresence robot, you really need to be able to send commands to it through the Internet, so I am also playing around with TCP/IP as a way to send information to the robot.”

Beyond that, the brothers — who formed the Melbourne Eastern Suburbs Hackers (MESH) group to utilize technology to enable those with disabilities — have also devised an innovative button box. Due to their condition, both Nick and Chris experience difficulties when pressing buttons on a keyboard. To eradicate the problem, this DIY device can assign any one of the four buttons to any keyboard key. It uses an Arduino Leonardo (ATmega32U4) to mimic the signals of a keyboard (or a mouse), which is made possible through a simple program running on the board.

(Source: ABC News)

(Source: ABC News)

“I have also made my own modifications to the program to get rid of some bugs. I also wrote a program that allows me to use the ‘scroll wheel’ on a mouse as a game, Stardrive, that I play requires players to frequently zoom in and out, but the makers never assigned a key for the zoom,” Chris writes.

Most recently, the twins sat down with ABC News to share their envision of how public Makerspaces like their own can improve the lives of those with living with disabilities.

“What we want to do is to enable people with disabilities to design and create things for themselves,” Nick explains. “In the past it was virtually impossible for someone like me to actually make something physical, but now with computers, computer-aided design and 3D printers it’s become relatively easy.”

Intrigued? You can browse through the Fryer brothers’ latest projects here, while read the entire ABC News write-up here.

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