I studied mechanical engineering at the University of Salford in the mid-1980s. Central Salford in those days was very different – the legendary Smiths were in their prime, the local coal mine was still operating, and the Salford docks (now the site of Media City) had just closed; there certainly were no trendy coffee shops or luxury flats! I stayed on to complete a PhD, then following postdoc work at Salford and a period working at Roessingh Research and Development in the Netherlands, returned in 2000 to take up a permanent post in the new health faculty. The University had set up one of only two UK degree courses in prosthetics and orthotics and this led to opportunities to carry out research in the area. With my colleague Dave Howard, we set up a research group focusing on biomedical engineering and rehabilitation technologies, with a particular focus on prosthetics and functional electrical stimulation systems.
Fast forward to 2017 and an opportunity arose to work with partners on a bid for funding to address a challenging, but very exciting area – low cost, upper limb prostheses. I had a growing interest in upper limb prosthetics, but until then, like the majority of researchers in the field, had focused largely on electrically powered devices. Body-powered devices offer some features which may make them particularly well suited to low and middle income countries. For instance, they are purely mechanical devices, removing the need for the user to have access to chargers and power supplies; the fact that they are purely mechanical also, with good design, makes them potentially repairable in local communities.
We officially started the project in February and it has been an inspiring and sometimes challenging few months. First thing I want to say is that it is a pleasure to be working with such an enthusiastic team. The other thing to note is the enthusiasm of others in both industry and academia who hear about the work.
So, what have we achieved so far? Led by Maggie Donovan-Hall at Southampton, with the academics in Uganda and Jordan, the team has carried out scoping studies in Jordan and Uganda and three other groups of students and trainees have carried out complementary field work for the project. The UCL team have started their work on digital tools with which to better understand how when and why people choose to use their prosthesis. The Jordanian team has recruited Nedaa Elayan to work on the project and she is reviewing the other low cost devices for the upper limb.
The Salford team has been beavering away on the first experimental study, focusing on better understanding the problems with current body-powered devices. Our postdoc, Alix Chadwell, has made great progress on what has proven to be surprisingly under-researched and very challenging problem. She is spending a lot of time in our movement analysis labs, piloting the complex data collection protocols, and hopes to make a start on the full experiment in the next few weeks – more to follow soon! In parallel to this, our new PhD student, Mick Prince has made a great start on his work on the design of adjustable sockets. We have also just recruited two PhD students in Uganda, Martha Mulerwa and Kenneth Rubango, to work with the Salford and Ugandan teams on the manufacturing aspects of the project. So, exciting times ahead!
I hope you will follow our blog and welcome your comments on the project as it develops!