Wars have never left anyone without a loss. For Ali Serhan, images of the 15-year Lebanese civil war, which started in 1975, continue to play in his mind.
The fighting took its toll on Serhan’s life after a shrapnel from an exploding bomb claimed his right arm while he was hiding in a cafe in the Nabaa area east of the capital Beirut.
Serhan was at the cafe with four of his friends. They were playing cards earlier that day when sporadic bombardment suddenly resumed, trapping them there.
Thirty-seven years later, Serhan, 51, continues to dream of regaining his arm, and perhaps meeting his friends to play cards once again.
The first part of Serhan’s dream is on its way of becoming a reality, since he met Manar Harakeh, a young Lebanese man who is exerting efforts to manufacture an affordable robotic arm–also known as the bionic arm—which would grant its wearer a sense of independence that has otherwise been taken away.
“I never believed that a bet which my friends at work once [made] would turn into a reality. I had promised that I will manufacture bionic limbs to benefit amputees,” says Harkeh, 26.
The young man, who works with the International Rescue Committee helping Syrian refugees in Lebanon, made his promise after he saw a little Syrian girl who lost her arm in an airstrike in Bab Amro in Homs, Syria in 2013.
The child, named Hind, with her big blue eyes filled with sadness, pushed Harakeh to think of more than one way to help her regain her arm’s functions.
“One hand cannot wipe away the tears of refugee children who’ve seen atrocities that even adults cannot bear,” Harakeh tells Newsweek Middle East.
His sense of duty to extend humanitarian aid to those like Hind and dozens of others across the 1,300 Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon is remarkable.
Today, Harakeh’s promise has become a reality, as the college student has managed to create a prototype of the bionic arm and is continuously testing it to enhance its functions.
How it All Began
Moved by Hind’s tears, Harakeh, who is a graduating computer sciences and communication engineering student at the Open Arab University, pitched the idea of a bionic arm as part of his graduation project to his professor.
After thorough discussion—and the professor’s initial hesitation and skepticism—Harakeh decided to go through with the challenge in November 2015.
The first impediment facing him was that he knew nothing whatsoever about bionic arms or any information on how to execute the project.
Since then, Harakeh has read volumes of scientific research on the matter, including studies and experiments in the field of mechanical engineering and the anatomy of the human arm and its movement. This pushed him towards another challenge: could he build a bionic arm that mimics the human hand?
“I had gone through a large number of medical books that dealt with the anatomy of the arm as well as electromechanical engineering books, and have consulted with a number of doctors; one of them gave me several books explaining the anatomy of the hand,” says Harakeh.
The answer to his question came later as Harakeh found out about the possibility of connecting the bionic arm to the nerves in the wearer’s arm, after he came across a non-medical project called the Myo Armband, which is a device that can control the TV or phones via motion when worn on the arm, without touching these devices.
It works through IMG signals, which means it receives and analyzes signals from the nerves and muscles in the arm through micro controllers called arduino.
An arduino is an electronic board which is easy to use and reads the electrical signals via sensors linked to Bluetooth technology, which in turn transforms those signals into orders and consequently mechanical movements.
After delving into this project, Harakeh capped on the device and reprogrammed it, then inserted it in the bionic arm.
The sensors on the bionic arm managed to receive the electric voltage that passes through the nerve to the muscle.
“However, the greatest difficulty remained in analyzing the canning voltages passing through the nerves and controlling every movement in the arm,” says Harakeh.
It was a highly complicated matter due to the advanced mechanical movement of the human arm and the complicated function of each of the nerves, especially the functions provided by the nerves in the big thumb.
Anatomy wise, the human thumb is the first difference between human beings and other primates with opposable thumbs, such as the chimpanzees and gorillas.
According to Scientist and researcher Sergio Almecija, human beings were able to conquer the world with their hands as they performed skilled manual labor, which helped them develop themselves and their way of living.
The “human ability to gracefully handle matters around him depends on the thumb,” says Almecija.
The perfect design and structure of the human thumb, according to Almecija, proportionally conforms with the hand’s bones and the remainder of the fingers.
Every curve around the bones of the thumb (pollical distal phalanx) enhances the human being’s ability to control the object at hand, unlike other primates which don’t enjoy such a structure, which forces them to keep things in their palm before controlling it with their fingers.
Meanwhile, the programming technology related to Harakeh’s bionic arm was unavailable in Lebanon. He faced a problem finding specialized technicians in the field of programming, which forced him to learn the language (programming) via the internet, and some books.
He also discovered that it was due to the fact that most of Lebanon’s graduates prefer to work in the service sector rather than the industrial one.
After months of research and sleepless nights, Harakeh finally managed to manufacture a bionic arm that’s able to perform eight movements at the moment, which include moving the fingers, opening the palm, pointing toward something, opening the door and other simple mechanical movements.
The bionic arm was manufactured using pla, explains Harakeh, which is a form of organic plastic that has no side effects on the user and is eco-friendly. This material is used in 3D printers, and the bionic arm itself was 3D printed.
“When I wanted to manufacture the bionic arm in Lebanon, I resorted to Arcenciel which is a nongovernmental organization. Arcenciel hooked me up with Serhan, who was my first subject of tests.
The hardest part of the project was studying and analyzing the function of the nerves,” says Harakeh.
The importance of such a bionic arm is that it requires no surgical intervention and doesn’t require much training to use it. The wearer can hold up to 15 kg in each finger and a total weight of 60 kg per arm.
Harakeh’s prototype was going to cost him $1,200 to manufacture in Lebanon, particularly because 3D printing in the tiny Mediterranean country is monopolized by a few companies.
Because of this, he decided to manufactured it outside Lebanon for mere $800.
“If I had the chance to manufacture it in the U.S. or Europe, it would have cost me much less. I am working on building this arm one step at a time as I am paying from my own pocket, and I wait for my monthly cheque from the NGO I work with to pay for the needed items for my project,” says Harakeh.
The young inventor says he doesn’t think of asking anyone to finance his project because “those who would fund it may look at it as a profit-making project rather than a humanitarian project.”
“I want it to be available to those who cannot afford expensive equipment. That is why I’m working slowly but surely on my own,” he adds.
The project has cost him $2,000 so far, but if he wishes to manufacture it again, it would cost less, he says. His dream is that anyone in need of a bionic arm should be able buy it to regain their independence.
The bionic arm is not available yet in the market because it needs further adjustments, according to Harrakeh.
He wants to add more motor skills and sensors to it, which he hopes won’t exceed $5,000 in cost once he is done.
So far, he has learned a lot by trial and error and the more he researches and implements steps in this project, the more advanced his prototype of the bionic arm becomes.
Meanwhile the Lebanese government remains uncooperative when it comes to adopting and helping inventors.
NGOs such as Arcenciel and others try their best within their capabilities to support them.
As for Harakeh, he dreams that with further modification in the coming years, musicians who lost their arms, would be able to play instruments once more.