Finding A Path To Overcome Obstacles
Adam Linnebur had a great idea for his senior engineering project at Norwich University. He wanted to design a more capable prosthetic arm than the one he already has. "It seemed like a project that would apply the skills we were learning in class," he said.
"Our professor told us to look at the products and technology out there," he said, "and either find a way to improve on something or come up with something new." Linnebur wanted to come up with something new.
The 36-year-old Lyndonville, VT., resident lost his right arm in a motorcycle accident when he was a teenager. He recruited Kevin Christie, a friend who transferred to Norwich with him in 2003, to help. Then John Kivelin, an active-duty Marine attending Norwich as part of an advanced education program, joined the group after hearing about the project. "I was happy that they thought it was a good idea and were excited about it," Linnebur said. "It's been great to be part of a team.
The three students spent weeks bouncing ideas off each other. Linnebur knew from experience that many amputees find it difficult to correctly position their prosthetics to perform basic functions. While researching the project they contacted Motion Control Inc., a major manufacturer of prosthetics. When an engineer there told them there are no powered humeral rotators (a device that rotates the upper arm) currently on the market, the group decided that making one would be their goal.
"When you don't have humeral rotation you have to rotate the prosthetic arm with your other hand," Linnebur said. "This would free the other hand from needing to do that. It would improve the functionality greatly."
Many of the powered prosthetics on the market are outfitted with small gears and motors. "The gears used in a lot of these prosthetics are very small," Linnebur said. "Making one would be like building a watch." While thinking about the project Linnebur remembered watching animated mannequins that were created with pneumatic devices to simulate life-like movements. Somewhere along the way the idea of using pneumatics developed into an idea to use hydraulics to build the prosthetic.
"With hydraulics you can drive multiple devices with one motor," Linnebur said. "You can't do that with gears. So there are some great advantages to this design. Using hydraulics allowed us to place the motor outside of the device. We pulled the power supply out of the arm and located the motor on the user's back to spread the weight out more evenly," he said. "It's a totally different approach."
"We think this design is unique because of our use of hydraulics," Linnebur said. "We thought using hydraulics might alleviate the space constraints we were facing. The work we're doing will be available for others to research, and if they like the concept they could build on it," he added.
The group has put approximately 1,000 hours into the project. Kivelin learned a computer programming language to spearhead the building of the actual humeral rotator for the finished project. "This was a great opportunity to work on a multi-discipline team," Linnebur said. Kivelin is majoring in Mechanical Engineering, while Linnebur and Christie both study Electrical Engineering.
Linnebur, who will graduate in May, has already been offered a position as an Electrical Engineer at Goodrich Aerospace in Vergennes. But his life as a student hasn't been an easy one. The three-hour commute from Norwich campus to his home in Lyndonville usually forces him to spend the week away from his wife, Heidi. When classes are in session he lives in nearby Williamstown and goes home on weekends.
"I only get to see Heidi on the weekends and even then I'm busy doing homework," he said. "She's been incredibly supportive and that has been part of my drive. I know how much she's giving up, so I keep that in mind and that is part of my motivation to do well," he said.
He didn't stop at just doing well. Linnebur has been on the Dean's List every semester since coming to Norwich in 2003. He was also awarded the Ernest N. Harmon Engineering Award, which recognizes the senior with the greatest promise of success in an engineering career.
Throughout their work on the project, news reports showing injured veterans returning from Iraq have constantly been on the students' minds. "When I see amputees coming back from Iraq, I think about what kind of prosthetics they are going to have. So when I think about who's going to benefit from it there's a personal connection there. Having lost a limb, I can identify with their struggle, and being here at Norwich really brings that home. I mean, some of my classmates will be over there," Linnebur said.
Learning a new discipline and being able to apply it in such a meaningful way also struck a powerful, personal chord with Linnebur. "Working with the team through the design process, I became removed from my original, personal motivations for this project. But the fact is, losing
my right arm presented a great obstacle for me to overcome. Over time, I realized that studying to become an Electrical Engineer became a way for me to overcome that obstacle, and Norwich provided me with the path," he said.