University of Alberta engineering student building better bionic limbs

Building brain-controlled bionic arms is just a day’s work for McNiel-Inyani Keri.

'You can trick your body into thinking the limb is moving and that's kind of cool'

McNiel-Inyani Keri, a graduate student in mechanical engineering at the University of Alberta, is researching how to build better bionic limbs. (BLINC Edmonton)

Building brain-controlled bionic arms is just a day's work for McNiel-Inyani Keri.

Keri, 23, is exploring the use of advanced prosthesis that rely on sensors directly connected to the nerve endings and muscles in the patient, restoring the feeling and movement of a real limb.

"You can trick your body into thinking the limb is moving and that's kind of cool," he said. "If you're able to grab information about the prosthesis and how it's moving, you are able relay that information up the muscle.

"And so when the arm is moving, you feel as though your hand is moving."

As a masters student in mechanical engineering at the University of Alberta, Keri is working to build advanced robotic prostheses capable of touching and sensing the world much like living limbs.

His research, in partnership with the Bionic Limbs for Improved Natural Control Lab in Edmonton, focuses on the development of prosthetic devices which provide sensory feedback to their users, giving them improved motor control.

"The goal of my project is kind of twofold," Keri said of his ongoing thesis research.

"I'm trying to do more exploratory work, trying to find out how we can hack the biology of an individual to try and get them to feel as if their own limb is moving when the prosthesis is moving," Keri said in an interview Monday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"And on the other side, I'm developing technologies that allow us to extract information about how that limb is moving."

You can trick your body into thinking the limb is moving and that's kind of cool.-McNiel-Inyani Keri.

Keri designed a sensor prototype for the advanced prosthetics which costs around $100 to produce, much cheaper than commercial options currently available.

"Commercial sensors are in the tens of thousands of dollars," he said. "And I'm in the process of comparing these two together to see if the sensor that I built is reliable.

"And if it is reliable, then I can see how the prosthesis is moving and use that to drive the rest of my research."
Keri is researching brain-controlled prostheses in partnership with the Bionic Limbs for Improved Natural Control Lab in Edmonton. (BLINC Edmonton)
As an undergraduate in the biomedical stream in the university's electrical and computer engineering program, Keri helped develop a series of innovative medical technologies, including a virtual reality system using 2D ultrasound images which allows surgeons to view the insertion of a needle during surgery, in real time.

This weekend, Keri was honoured for his work, receiving a National Black Coalition of Canada Award for Excellence, which honours individuals or groups that have made outstanding contributions to the community or society at large.

Keri was recognized in the Youth Award category for community work and his ongoing research.

He was also recently named to the Alberta Council for Global Cooperation's annual "Top 30 Under 30" list. 

'Just really inspiring'

Keri credits the perseverance of the amputees he works with for keeping him inspired to innovate.

"It's amazing. The individuals that volunteer to participate in the studies, they have remarkable stories and their energy is just really inspiring," Keri said.

"I really like the intersection between engineering and medicine and the ability to use my technical skills and medical know-how to improve the quality of life for these individuals.

"I feel like if you have skills or you have talents, what better way to use them, than trying to improve the lives of others."

Keri was born in Kosti, Sudan, during the country's second civil war. His family fled to Egypt before immigrating to Edmonton when Keri was six.

Throughout his high school years, Keri studied often with Sky Club, a homework group for refugee and immigrant children at the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers.

It was there where an engineer and a physicist who volunteered with the club inspired him to pursue a career in engineering.

He now spends much of his time volunteering at the centre mentoring kids in math and science.

"It's a place where a lot of these newcomer youths, many of which are first- and second-generation newcomers, get support on how to integrate into this new society. It's just a fantastic place."