1:1 interview with Hackaday Prize finalist OpenBionics

Did you know that 80% of the 2015 Hackaday Prize finalists are powered by Atmel? With only days left until we learn which project will walk away with this year’s crown, we recently sat down with each of the potential winners to get to know them better. 

While there are surely amazing bionic hands available for amputees today, their price tag can range anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000. This is life-changing technology that has a tremendous impact on people all over the world, however the vast majority can’t afford it. Not to mention, these devices are often times too heavy. As a result, one group of Makers decided to take it upon themselves to create a low-cost, lightweight, custom bionic hand with the help of 3D printing. The total cost? Less than $1,000 — a mere fraction of its commercial counterparts.

We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with OpenBionics team member Minas Liarokapis to gain a better insight into the project, its inception and what’s in store for the future.


Atmel: What is OpenBionics?

Minas Liarokapis: OpenBionics is an open source initiative for the development of affordable, highly functional, low complexity robotic and prosthetic devices that can be easily fabricated with rapid prototyping techniques and off-the-shelf materials. We have already built a few generations of robotic and prosthetic hands — since 2013 when OpenBionics was founded — and we are continuously working on improving our designs.

Atmel:. How did you come to the idea for OpenBionics? Moreover, what inspired you to enter the contest with your project?

ML: I had the inspiration for the creation of OpenBionics while working on my PhD thesis at the Control Systems Lab (CSL) of the National Technical University of Athens (NTUA), under the supervision of Professor Kostas Kyriakopoulos (lab director). He was motivated by the observation that the state of the art robotic and prosthetic hands are overpriced and lack basic functionalities. So, in 2013 the OpenBionics team was set up, consisting of Agis Zisimatos and Christoforos Mavrogiannis and Prof. Kostas Kyriakopoulos also members of the CSL. In 2014, George Kontoudis joined the team.

Since the early beginnings of the OpenBionics initiative, our main priority was to share open designs with the community of Makers, scientists, hobbyists, robotic enthusiasts and later on with people in need (e.g. amputees). Hackaday appeared to be a welcoming community for projects like ours and upon hearing about the Prize we felt this would be a good motivation for us to accelerate the development of our hands.


Atmel: In line with the Hackaday Prize’s theme, how are you hoping OpenBionics changes the world? What’s the mission?

ML: A lot of companies and initiatives claim that they will change the world, it’s a catchy phrase, a nice slogan. We dream about changing the world, we really hope that we will be able to play a significant role in this process at some point. Until then, we want to change people’s lives. To make them happier, more productive, to inspire them to be creative. To help amputees regain their lost dexterity. To educate young engineers, who will eventually become better than us. People will change the world, not initiatives or companies. Together we can change the world and we can make it a better place.

Regarding our HaD Prize project, we have proposed a fully functional prosthetic hand that can execute 144 grasps with a single actuator. This hand weighs less than 300g and costs less than $200. Currently, we are working also on giving to the design a product feel and make it more beautiful. Nowadays, commercially available prostheses cost up to $100.000, more than a sports car. This is irrational and has to be changed. We really hope that products like ours will reshape the prosthetics market. Amputees can build their own prostheses. Hackerspaces, Makerspaces and Fab-Labs can facilitate this process. We really hope that we will trigger a change in this field.

Atmel: What’s different about it? What’s your vision for the next five years? Where do you see OpenBionics going or what/who would you hope will pick up the project and use it?

ML: Our prosthetic hand design is based on a novel differential mechanism that allows a single actuator to control multiple fingers using a simple intuitive interface based on buttons. This differential facilitates the desired cost and weight reduction. We feel, that the differential is the cool idea.

OpenBionics just started. We have many ideas and many cool designs in mind for the years to come. We want to be part of the open-source revolution! From the beginning our designs have been completely open for everyone to use them and experiment with them. We hope to achieve a level of design simplicity for our products, that will allow everyone — amputees, Makers, scientists and hobbyists — to replicate our hands using the provided assembly guides. Stay tuned for more!


Atmel: As we know, the Maker Movement has opened the door for everyone from hobbyists to tech enthusiasts to hardware engineers to tinker around. What’s your personal background?

ML: We are a team of engineers and we are all working professionally (most of us in academic positions) in the area of robotics.

Atmel: What are some of the core pieces of hardware embedded?

ML: Other than the hardware designed by the initiative, we use [Atmel based] Arduino boards, servo motors and NFC tags for the new design of the NFC ready fingers.

Atmel: What hardware products or projects are you also building at the moment?

ML: We have many different ongoing projects. In the next few months, we will release a new version of our prosthetic hand, based on the Hybrid Deposition Manufacturing technique. Then, we will focus on ameliorating our robot hands. Exoskeletons, rehabilitation and other wearable human augmentation devices are also in our future plans.

Atmel: Why pick Atmel (and Arduino) chips?

ML: Arduino boards with Atmel chips are open source, affordable and well documented. These are characteristics of paramount importance for us.

Atmel: What advice would you offer other Makers when getting into hardware and embarking on a new project?

ML: They should not be afraid to fail. We have failed many times, but we never gave up. We feel that when someone has an idea worth spreading she/he has an obligation to share it with the world, no matter how busy she/he is or what other personal constraints she/he has. Dream, design, build, repeat and in the process you will have a lot of fun!


Atmel: Any plans to launch a startup and perhaps even take to Kickstarter/Indiegogo?

ML: All these ideas have definitely crossed our minds and we are currently in a process of discussing with each other the future of OpenBionics. The only certain thing, is that the initiative will remain completely open source. We are open to new collaborations and we plan to be even more involved in the Makers and open source communities.

AtmelAnd… if you win, will you be heading to space or taking the cash?!

ML: Space is fun, but we are four and we cannot decide who to send up there. Moreover, if we get the cash we will be able to do wonderful things and prepare far more exciting designs

AtmelAnything else you want to tell us and our followers?

ML: Don’t be afraid to dream, design, create, innovate and please keep your minds and your ideas open. Together we are much stronger!

(UPDATE: Liarokapis and the OpenBionics crew took home second place in the 2015 Hackaday Prize.)

Don’t miss our recent interview with fellow HaD Prize finalist Chris Low. You can check that out here!

7 thoughts on “1:1 interview with Hackaday Prize finalist OpenBionics

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