A Bionic Arm That Pushes the Boundaries of Imagination

Omkaar Kotedia

After losing his left foot and left arm after being pulled under a train in London four years ago, biological scientist James Young underwent the process of regaining what he had lost during his accident. But instead of living the rest of his life with traditional prosthetics, Young decided to make himself bionic. Now he has a $90,000 device attached to his shoulder that would make Iron Man jealous. The specialists at the Alternative Limb Project helped Young to design and create his bionic arm, which is the first of its kind. But it was no easy task. “James's arm was the most challenging project to date,” says Sophie de Oliveira Barata, founder of the Alternative Limb Project. “It took a group of 11 3D designers, electronic specialists, mechanical and robotic engineers, and designers at GTR (a company that manufactures carbon fiber parts for Formula 1 racing and aerospace projects) to produce the arm."

The result is a functional piece of high-end technology inspired by Young’s favorite video game — Metal Gear Solid. The arm features a removable panel in the shoulder with a circle of magnets capable of holding small items (such as a camera or a phone), which can be charged or powered by the arm, a heart-rate sensor, a USB port, torch, laser, quadcopter drone, and a small screen with Bluetooth capabilities so Young can display messages, emails, incoming calls and social media notifications. But his favorite feature is the LED lights that run up and down the arm. “It’s just totally me,” Young says. “I’m like a human moth.” But since the options for a bionic arm are endless, Young anticipates that there will be a few updates. “I submitted a load of ideas, but we didn’t have time to do them all whilst making the arm look really great,” Young says. “I plan to add them in future 3D-printed updates or on a new limb, because this one has ended up being more for style and misses out on gadgets. Really, it doesn’t even have a bottle opener.”


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The prosthetic is a prototype, but de Oliveira Barata hopes that the idea catches on. “Hopefully projects like this will encourage more interest in developing the world of prosthetics,” she says. De Oliveira Barata began her career in Hollywood, studying special effects makeup and creating prosthetics for the film industry. But after hearing about work to create realistic prosthetics for amputees in the medical industry, she took her show-biz skills and applied them to real life. “I thought to myself, ‘Wouldn't it be fun to make more unusual body parts? I am sure there would be people out there who might want to bring positive attention to their limbs as well as those who would want to blend into society.’ ” Since, she has been working with clients such as Young, who want to bring their imaginings to life in order to start a new life.


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And while we're not convinced that we'll all be bionic, self-charging robot-humans anytime soon, it's undeniable that the media’s imagination has led to real-life inventions. "I think the entertainment industry plays a role in inspiring innovations in technology," Lucy Carr, Bonham's Auctions entertainment memorabilia specialist, says. "2001: A Space Odyssey is a particularly interesting case, as the production team reached out to real-life companies such as IBM and Boeing and asked them to develop futuristic products to be showcased in the film, potentially inspiring real-life innovations at those companies." With Young’s bionic arm, Blade Runner's drones, and self-driving cars as proof, Carr says that fiction’s role in tech history isn't going anywhere. And we wouldn't be surprised if we see a version of Young’s arm in James Cameron’s next space epic.

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