Meet Albert Manero and His Bionic Kids
Many children dream of being a superhero when they grow up. Albert Manero makes those dreams a reality. While a graduate student at the University of Central Florida (UCF), he and a team of volunteers designed and then 3D-printed the world’s first Iron Man prosthetic arm, complete with red and gold detailing and a functioning “repulsor” light in the palm.
Manero, with help from Microsoft, then arranged to have Marvel Studios actor Robert Downey Jr. present it to one of the Iron Man character’s biggest fans, Alex Pring, a then seven-year-old boy, who thanks to Manero’s efforts, can now ride a bike, give high fives, and hug his mother with two arms rather than one.
There’ve been others. Zach, an eight-year-old from Seattle, received a Spiderman arm from Manero, and has now decided to set aside a career of crime fighting for one of helping others. Aspiring marine biologist Annika has a flower arm, young cheerleader Julianna has an arm sporting UCF team colors, and Wyatt has an arm modeled after his favorite performers, the Blue Man Group.
These are all wonderful stories, but what’s even more wonderful is the fact that, where above-the-elbow prostheses such as these might cost $50,000 or more (not counting any Iron Man personalization), Manero said the hardware costs for his 3D-printed arms is less than $1,000.
“There are additional costs such as occupational therapy and travel expenses, but these have so far been picked up by our corporate sponsors and philanthropy,” said Manero. “Our goal is that no family will have to pay for one of our arms.”
What was once a university project has morphed into a business. Though still working from the UCF campus, Manero is now president of the nonprofit firm Limbitless Solutions. Together with a handful of support staff and a few dozen college students, Limbitless is busy pursuing FDA approval for its electromyographic arm in hopes of more easily bringing the device to others.
“About five out of every 10,000 births have some sort of limb defect,” he said. “The majority of those are at the upper part of the arm, where access to traditional prosthetics for children is limited. It’s really a much bigger problem and a lot more kids than people realize. Unfortunately, that number continues to rise.”
The arm works by flexing whatever muscles are closest to the missing limb, generating electrical signals that are detected by surface stickers like those used on an EKG machine. Simple movement can be achieved in “around 15 minutes,” although more complex hand and finger gestures must be learned. To this end, Limbitless has partnered with UCF’s School of Visual Arts and Design to develop special video games, which help kids develop these skills.
As for Alex and the other children helped through his work, Manero said working with them has been extremely rewarding. “Watching the positive effect the arm has on these kids, their families—it’s been an incredible adventure. We’ve helped around 20 families so far, and we look forward to helping as many as we can going forward.”