Rice students create robotic arm to bring teen's dreams within reach

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by Kevin Reece / KHOU 11 News

khou.com

Posted on September 24, 2013 at 6:31 PM

Updated Tuesday, Sep 24 at 6:40 PM

FRIENDSWOOD, Texas—In a few more months, Dee Faught will be an 18-year-old high school graduate with dreams of heading to college to major in music production. But sometimes those dreams, just like the light switch at home high above his head, often seem out of his reach.

Faught was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, often referred to as brittle bone disease. It stunted his grown and left him with limbs shortened and twisted.

"I can’t pick up things that are over like 10 pounds," he said describing the potential damage that the smallest of efforts can bring to bones weakened and brittle.

Dee’s parents took him into their Friendswood home as a foster child eight years ago and then adopted him as one of their own. They say they have the same hopes and dreams for him as they do for any of their other seven children.

"He wants to be like all the rest of the 18 year olds," said Stacy Faught. "He wants to be independent. He wants his freedom. He wants to be on his own. He wants to go to college. And he has his dreams. And we want to see him achieve those dreams."

Those dreams inched a bit closer last week with the arrival of a robotic arm created just for Dee by engineering students at Rice University. The bioengineering students won Rice’s George R. Brown School of Engineering Design Showcase and Competition last April for their R-ARM. 

The students worked on the project for two years and presented it to Dee last Friday at Shriners Hospital. With a few more modifications and fine tuning, it will be Dee’s to keep early next week. 

The robotic arm fits on the back of Dee’s motorized wheelchair and he operates it with a video game controller, enabling him to pick up objects from the floor or even books high on a shelf. 

"It gives me my independence that I want," Dee said after giving the robotic arm a test drive. "I don’t have to pretty much rely on them (parents) to do anything for me."

"I expected a high level of engineering talent. But I was astounded at the amount of sensitivity they had toward Dee," said Dr. Gloria Gogola, the teen’s orthopedic surgeon at Shriners Hospital. She has advised several design teams at Rice.

"It gives me hope that there are young engineers out there who are so sensitive to people with special needs who are fantastic in their own right," Dr. Gogola said.

"It’s been an incredible experience for us," said bioengineering student Nimish Mittal of the student engineering team they dubbed Team Brittle Bones. "We never thought we would be building a robotic arm for an actual patient. It’s been an incredible journey for us."

"Two years ago when we first started I had absolutely no idea where this was going to go," said team member Sergio Gonzalez. "In fact I didn’t even think we were going to continue it. At first it was like this project I was working on but then it became a personal investment."

"This day is just amazing," added bioengineering student and team member Matthew Nojoomi. "It’s the accumulation of all our hard work. It’s just really great to see it all come together and Dee actually being able to use the arm."

"I was taught not to let anything get me down and don’t let anything get in my way," said Dee after thanking the students for their priceless gift.

"It’s enjoyable to see him with a smile on his face that he’s able to do something he hadn’t been able to do before," said his dad Keith Faught. "It gives him the self confidence to get out there and do more."

The bioengineering students say commercially produced robotic arms could cost as much as $25,000. They made Dee’s robotic arm for $800.

Dee Faught graduates from Friendswood High School later this year and plans to take his robotic arm with him when he enrolls at Alvin Community College – now with his dreams within reach.

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