Noam Yakar’s artificial hand took him to Phoenix in May.
That’s where the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair was held. Noam’s project — a prosthetic hand, activated by nerve impulses, that uses computer vision to grasp objects weighing up to a pound — came in fourth among the 78 projects entered in the category of biomedical engineering.
A rising 11th grader at Tenafly High School, Noam, 15, already had placed first in the biomedical engineering and bioinformatics category at the New Jersey Regional Science Fair. He was one of five students at the state fair, held at Rutgers, to be selected for the national competition.
The project began with a class in science research, “where students come up with research topics they’re interested in” and read and annotated papers on that topic. Noam was interested in prosthetics —a friend’s father had lost a leg — and in electronics. So electronic prosthetics it was.
Reviewing the research, Noam saw prosthetics that used cameras for controls, and prosthetics that were controlled by electrical impulses from muscles.
“I thought that if I could combine them both, I could make something novel that’s never been seen in the market before,” he said.
He bought an electromyography sensor, which “takes the vibration from a muscle and quantifies the vibration based on the electrical signal. Once we get the magnitude we can coordinate that to a muscle of the hand.” He had to program a microcomputer to take the signal, clean it up, and translate it to move the motors in the prosthetic hand he built.
When he demonstrated how the hand works, he put electrodes on his biceps 2.3 inches above the elbow.
“I’m assuming the majority of the forearm is not present,” he said. The muscle sensor costs $38 on Amazon. Noam wrote code to smooth the signal from the sensor.
“That muscle is tied to the nerves that are targeting the fingers,” he said. “My job was correlating numbers to movements and trying to make the prosthetic learn through artificial intelligence.”
To activate the hand on himself, Noam begins by attaching the muscle sensor to his biceps. With only one sensor, the user has far less control than over an actual hand, where many different nerves and muscles control five fingers. That’s where artificial intelligence comes in — and a camera on the hand itself. The image from the camera is sent to a microcomputer — he used an Arduino — which then recognizes the shape of the object it sees. Understanding what the hand is trying to pick up, the microprocessor is able to manipulate the mechanical fingers to grasp the object.
Noam also wrote code to interpret the video signal from the camera strapped on the mechanical hand. “Once it’s closer than 10 inches to an object, the camera identifies its shape using an algorithm I wrote. Depending on the shape, the arm will grab the object differently.”
Noam designed the plastic hand himself, basing it on actual anatomy. “I tried to model the structure of an actual human hand and recreate that,” he said. “I looked at anatomical models of the hand and its tendons and joints.”
For months, Noam would go to the Bergen Academies in Hackensack every Wednesday, when the school opened up its high tech equipment as a public makerspace. At $125, the plastic filament for the third printing was the largest expense of the project, which had a total price tag of $308.93.
With the science fairs behind him, Noam has been learning more about algorithms to improve his mechanical hand. He’s started designing a new prosthetic arm. And he’s looking into getting a patent and hopes “eventually to try to get it to market.”
In his presentation, he acknowledges the supervision of his mother, Dr. Shoshana Yakar, a professor of biochemistry at NYU College of Dentistry. “She made sure all the soldering and electricity was safe,” he said.
Both his mother and his father, Erez Yakar, were born in Israel. Noam was born in Washington, D.C., and the family moved to Tenafly when he was a baby.
The most challenging part of the project was “staying motivated,” he said. “The idea started very early. I only started building the prosthetic itself in January. The competition was in March.
“Executing the plan was the hardest part. Waking up every day thinking about the arm, never giving up on the idea of the end goal, of having a product that actually works.”
Over the summer, Noam worked with City College and the Weizmann Institute. And he flew out to California to take part in the Israeli American Council’s hackathon focusing on problems in the Jewish and Israeli communities. This year the challenge focused on the stories of Holocaust survivors, and Noam was on the winning team.
“The hackathon really allowed me to develop my leadership skills. It helped my presentation skills,” he said.
“We created an app where you can look at video interviews with Holocaust survivors and also do tikkun olam, give charity in their name, so their memories are not just in video but everlasting in their action.”