One of Enzo Romero's favorite activities is playing the guitar, which he effortlessly does with his bright blue hand. Initially, it used to hurt, as he used his handless right arm to press down on chords. But now, with fingers on the end, he can play music painlessly.
It all began with 'The Empire Strikes Back', the 1980 epic space movie. Towards the end of the movie, Luke Skywalker loses his right hand, in a duel with Vader. But, he gets outfitted with a prosthetic L-hand 980, one that could not only move but feel.
The idea brought hope to Romero, who lived his life riding his bike or playing basketball using only his left hand.
But he had numerous questions that could only be answered by engineering.
Necessity, the mother of invention
Romero, who was born in Cusco, Peru, then moved to the capital city of Lima, to study mechatronics.
Unlike his life in Cusco, wherein his lack of a limb drew no stares, people in Lima began staring at his missing hand. He would hide the end of his right arm, to avoid any such glares.
Years later, Romero developed a left hand made of a bright blue plastic bottle. Today, he is the founder of LAT Bionics and a 2022 TED Fellow, for his efforts to make accessible and affordable prosthetic limbs for his fellow Peruvians.
Romero hasn't deciphered the trick to making limbs that can feel, but he hopes to get there, by incorporating custom attachments and haptic feedback.
At a TED Talk in Vancouver earlier this week, he said, "We have the capacity to develop our own technology, having the necessities of our people in mind."
Giving a hand
Three million people worldwide have an arm amputation, making up 30 percent of all amputees, and 2.4 million arm amputees live in developing countries. Bionic limbs, undoubtedly are expensive - mechanical prosthetics can cost $40,000 or more.
This is where Romero wanted to make a difference. Using low-cost and effective technologies, his company has outfitted more than 20 people in Peru with new limbs. The bionic hand costs anywhere from $800 for a more mechanical, body-powered model, to $2,500 for a hand outfitted with an electromyographic (EMG) sensor, which controls the prosthetic hand through tiny muscle movements the person wearing it makes, according to Insider.
The LAT Bionic hands have one motor inside but can perform several tasks such as pinch, carry, and press. These limbs are made from a filament made with melted-down PET plastic water and soda bottles, an inexpensive affair developed by Romero at LAT.
Affordability always in sight
The low-cost hands cannot click a mouse or type on a computer yet. Many of his clients are those who have lost their hands in work accidents and want to get back to manual labor. According to Romero, some require prosthetics that will let them do less dangerous computer jobs.
New solutions comprising two motors will be required. These could be expensive, but Romero has another cost-saving measure up his sleeve. He is considering outfitting the hands with a switch, to solve the typing problem.