An ASCII image of a bionic hand, next to an image of Bit the Raccoon.

When open source is paired with passionate people, we get innovative, creative solutions to help others. Meet Cliff Agius, who created a fully-functioning bionic arm.


Tell us a bit about yourself.  

I currently work as a pilot for a major UK airline, flying the plastic fantastic Boeing 787 around the world. Previously I was an electrical mechanical engineer for Ford, focussing on PLC Programming and Robotics.

While flying, I missed the challenge of engineering so I started to code in my spare time, beginning with simple websites and server-side code. I then found .NET and moved over to ASP.NET. Today I mostly work in C#/C++/Arduino C inside Visual Studio as a freelance developer on client projects, including Xamarin Mobile, embedded systems, and IoT, as well as how they connect to and use the cloud.


How long have you been active in the open source community?  

I have been active for few years starting with the OpenBionics repo and more recently PR’s into Xamarin.Forms and my own open source projects, including Handy.


What first attracted you to using open source?    

It’s a great place to see how others do things and learn best practices. By making the .NET stack open source, Microsoft has made it easier to fix bugs and test it locally in your project before pushing code changes as a PR to help others. It means bugs get found and fixed much quicker than if it was left to just the core team.


What are your favourite ever open source projects?  

I really like the Xamarin.Forms project, and I’ve done some work with allReady from Humanitarian Tool Box. My favourite has to be Handy, as it mixes my love of engineering, electronics and software, including mobile, all into one project. Best of all, it’s literally giving someone a hand.


What was the inspiration behind Handy?  

Kayden is a local 15 year old and the son of close friends. He was born without a left forearm and hand, as well as the middle fingers on his right hand, so life is a challenge at times. From a very young age Kayden and his parents have been visiting hospital to be measured and fitted with a prosthetic left arm. Great, you might think!

Sadly, these arms are exceedingly basic and consist of some heavy plastic with a heavy metal hook on the end, which attaches to Kayden with Velcro and is actuated with a wire going up his sleeve to his other shoulder. Now, this is better than nothing at all, and is far more than what’s available in many parts of the world, but we should be able to do better. We can do better.

Kayden’s mum asked if I can help with my 3D printer after seeing a story on the news in late 2016. I have taken the project, adapted it and changed it using my background skills in robotics and the years of tinkering with mobile apps. Being able Kayden and the family is special; seeing the smile on his face when he plays with the latest changes and tries new things that previously he couldn’t do. Best of all, my own children have taken a keen interest and have helped along the way.


Where did you start and how did the project go?  

Where all projects begin – hours of searching! I then 3D printed prototypes to see what worked and what didn’t. Kayden, being a teenager, can be brutal in the feedback, but that’s exactly what the project needs to drag it forward.

I wrote about Handy and the big picture on my blog. I also talk about some of the challenges I faced in another post.


Did you collaborate or use other OS code? 

I got lots of help from my eldest son, who did all the 3D design and modifications for the printed parts. Many friends also contributed ideas on the code and Xamarin App. A lot of the recent ideas for the project have come from the many meet-up and conference talks I have given.

Other OS projects I have used include OpenBionics, Userdialogs, Xamarin.Forms, Xamarin.Essentials, Adafruit drivers for their controllers and sensor boards, and Sharpnado.


How successful has it been so far?  

Kayden loves the hand and arm but we are still working to improve the fit of the socket and the way it works to suit him. His NHS prosthetic specialist has taken a very keen interest in the project and we are now working together to improve parts of the socket and fit, not just for Kayden but for future users too. With the team’s specialist knowledge and help, we hope to make the design simple and easy to replicate.


What’s next for the project? What are your ambitions for it going forwards? 

We want to get to the point where Kayden can reliably use the hand on a daily basis rather than the current ad-hoc use. I also want to build a kit to send anywhere in the world to help them learn how to build these arms for their local community. Then I guess we can move onto legs – my uncle had his amputated last year and hates the NHS prosthetic, so I foolishly agreed to take a look…