Public Release: 

Hopkins Engineering Undergrads' Inventions: Power Tools For Double Amputee, Military Surveillance Robot

Johns Hopkins University

Since losing his hands and forearms in a 1994 industrial accident, George Rickels, 59, of Baltimore, has wanted to do carpentry and minor home repairs without relying on another person for help. Three engineering undergraduates at The Johns Hopkins University, including one who is himself a double-amputee, have invented equipment to grant Rickels' wish.

Students Mili Ashar, Jay Humphries and Aaron Kim developed a mechanism that allows Rickels to attach a power drill, power saw or power screwdriver to his prosthetic arms without help from another person. Rickels made his request to the non-profit Volunteers for Medical Engineering organization, which handed the assignment to the students last fall.

The power tool mechanism was among 10 inventions constructed by Hopkins seniors in this year's Engineering Design Project course. The finished devices were judged in May by representatives of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, concluding a process that began last September when the three- member student teams were asked to solve real-world engineering challenges posed by corporate and institutional sponsors.

Creating the power-tool mechanism had special significance for Humphries, who lost his legs in a 1991 land mine explosion while serving with the U.S. Army in northern Iraq. Prosthetic limbs have restored much of his mobility, and he was anxious to help Rickels regain some independence as well. "It's really rewarding to see how we've helped the guy out," says Humphries, 26. "Just being able to do things without someone else's help is a really good feeling. It took me a while until I was able to function normally, so I know what the guy is going through."

For another project, the U.S. Army Research Laboratory in Aberdeen posed this challenge to the engineering students: Create a snake-like robot that can slither across rugged terrain, staying close to the ground to avoid detection by an enemy sentry. A camera and a microphone mounted on the device could transmit important surveillance information without risking a soldier's life. Students Josh Nisenbaum, Chris Singer and David Stein took up the challenge, developing a radio-controlled system, consisting of interlocking platforms, which exceeded their sponsor's expectations.

"This is real engineering," says Raymond Von Wahlde, an Army Research Laboratory official who oversaw the project. "It's an excellent class. Not only do the students get to apply the engineering skills they've learned in class, but they have to be able to present an oral report and a written report. They had to do a lot of research to find out what components are available and what has to be machined. And they had to work within a budget."

Each team, working within a $6,000 budget, had to design a device, purchase or fabricate the parts, and assemble the final product. Other projects developed this year included a lightweight, inexpensive page-turning device for the disabled; and a scanning unit that inspects cracks inside elbow-shaped utility pipes. Four of this year's projects cannot be unveiled publicly because of the need to protect a sponsor's patent rights.

The Engineering Design Project course is taught by Andrew F. Conn, a Hopkins graduate with more than 25 years of experience in public and private research and development. In past years, his students have developed a "safer" handgun that does not fire in the hands of an unauthorized user; an infrared mouth-held device that allows a quadriplegic to operate a computer from bed; an automatic wheelchair brake; a bicycle helmet that offers more protection than commercial headgear; and a wheelchair lift powered by a van's exhaust.

(MEDIA NOTE: Color or black and white photos of the student engineers with the power tools for an amputee and the snake-like robot are available.)

Following are the names and hometowns of students involved in some of the 1997 projects described in this release:

  • Power Tool Attachment Device for Double-Amputee:
    Mili Ashar -- Briarcliff Manor, N.Y.
    Jay Humphries -- Potomac, Md.
    Aaron Kim -- Tigard, Ore.

  • Snake-Like Surveillance Robot:
    Josh Nisenbaum -- Topsfield, Mass.
    Chris Singer -- Chalfont, Pa.
    David Stein -- New York (Brooklyn)

  • Page-Turner for the Disabled:
    Julia Fox -- Charlton, N.Y.
    Miles Levin -- Paramus, N.J.
    Derek Lewis -- Machias, N.Y

  • Scanning Device for Pipe Elbows:
    Victor Epand -- Hamilton, Ontario, Canada.
    Mace Jackson -- Dunwoody, Ga.
    Paul Qualkenbush -- Chicago.

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