Four years ago, when London resident James Young suffered a freak accident that left him with an “ugly- peach-colored and obvious” prosthetic arm and leg, little did he know that he would soon become ‘part cyborg’ in a one-of-a-kind experiment that would give him a prototype bionic arm. His new, futuristic-looking arm feels realistic, and in some ways is even better than a real one. It comes equipped with several cool features like a torch, a USB port, a laser light, and even a drone!
James’s life would never be the same after that fateful day in May 2012, when he was about to board a Docklands Light Railway train in East London. He happened to be walking too close to the platform when he extended his arm to push the button to open the doors, and the momentum of the moving train made him spin and lose balance. He slipped and fell between two carriages. James has no memory of the incident, but he’s been able to piece everything together using CCTV footage.
“My friends looked round and couldn’t see me,” he said. “The train stopped and my friends got on it and pulled the alarm. Two men helped them to look for me. The guy who found me, David Kelly, climbed under the train and talked to me to keep me conscious.” James was then airlifted to the Royal London Hospital where he was kept in an induced coma for 12 days. His left arm was badly damaged, while his left leg was severed below the knee during the accident. Eventually, surgeons were forced to amputate his arm as well, and perform 12 other operations to rebuild his badly damaged face and body.
Photo: Omkaar Kotedia/BBC
After spending nearly four months in the hospital, James was discharged with a standard issue NHS prosthetic arm and leg, with a hook instead of a hand. Although these were better than having no arm or leg, James found it extremely difficult to go about his daily life. “The prostheses are operated by straps and strings, which is uncomfortable to do on a traumatically amputated stump,” he explained. “I kept trying to measure myself against a fully-bodied, healthy, able human, which was unreasonable.”
A year ago, James’s life changed once again, but this time for the better. Being an avid gamer, he continued to use his good right arm to play, and last year answered an ad from a gaming company called Konami. They were looking for amputees interested in trying out a newly developed, futuristic prosthetic limb. And James was a perfect fit, thanks to his keen interest in video games. He was chosen over 60 other applicants and was taken to the London studio of prosthetics artist Sophie De Oliveira Barata, to have a custom metal arm designed specifically for him.
Sophie, creator of the Alternative Limb Project has previously worked on special effects for films as well. Along with a team of 10 experts, she created a $87,000 bespoke, battery-operated prosthetic device for James, consisting of a metal arm and an attached plastic articulated hand that can be controlled by the muscles in his shoulders. Sensors, attached to the skin of his shoulders to detect muscle signals, are connected to a harness that he wears across his upper body. The entire contraption operates seamlessly, getting as close to a human arm as currently possible. While Sophie designed the aesthetics of the device, a company called Open Bionics made the actual hand using a 3D printer.
Using the new hand, James is now able to pick up tiny objects like coins, along with performing countless other everyday tasks with ease. “It gives me a hand – and not a device,” he said. “It’s soft, but firm, so it’s really nice to shake!” What’s more, the arm incorporates a ton of other cool features – a USB port for him to charge his phone, a built-in watch, a torch to help him navigate in the dark, a drone fitted on a panel outside of the shoulder, and even a laser light for special effects.
Photo: Titanium James/GoFundMe
At 6ft 5in tall and wearing a robotic arm, James is now a striking figure. He was initially worried about how he could carry off the cyborg look, but it blended in fine with his personality. “I didn’t want to look like The Terminator because my job involves talking to doctors about the drugs they use,” he said. “I didn’t want to look as if I’m going to kill someone.” But as cool as his arm is, he can’t use it all the time – he’s got to take it off when he’s in the shower and when he goes to bed. And it’s still a prototype, so he needs to go in for regular fine-tuning and improvements.
It seems that the bionic arm hasn’t yet reached its full potential. The way it’s attached to James’s body is still considered ‘primitive’. If it could be upgraded with titanium implants so that the arm directly slots into his body, he could lift things like anyone else and even wave it around like a real limb. The implants would also give him a lot more strength. “The surgeons bore out some bone marrow and slide in a metal rod instead, so your bone cells can start to integrate with it,” he explained. And implants in his leg would bear his weight much better, even while using a standard leg prosthesis.
Such titanium implants will only be made available to military amputees next year in the UK, so James has started a fundraising campaign to be able to afford the implants himself. In the future, he also hopes to raise enough money to get a cyborg leg as well. Meanwhile, Open Bionics is also trying to get medical approvals for the bionic arm, to extend its use to other amputees in the UK.