Mr William Eng, 30, who has muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, is unemployed and financially dependent on his family.
He was diagnosed with the condition when he was 15 and started using a wheelchair a year later. It has become increasingly difficult for him to perform even simple tasks, like pressing a lift button or picking up an object from the ground.
Muscular dystrophy is a genetic condition that progressively causes weakness and decrease in muscle mass.
But after testing out a new prototype for a robotic arm last year that works with his motorised wheelchair, he is more optimistic about being more physically independent.
The Smart Auxiliary Assistive Robotic Arm (SAARA) is attached to a motorised wheelchair to help the user perform simple tasks, such as press lift buttons.
At the test stage, the arm lets Mr Eng push lift buttons and switches. He looks forward to the day he will receive his robotic arm and be able to perform functions he previously could not. He also hopes to find a job, such as handing out flyers, to support himself.
Mr Eng, a member of the Muscular Dystrophy Association Singapore (MDAS), was given this opportunity after Relsig Technologies was successful in its Tote Board–Enabling Lives Initiative (TB-ELI) Grant application to produce the prototype. The grant is administered by SG Enable, an agency dedicated to helping persons with disabilities.
A more affordable robotic arm for users with disabilities
Its developers aim for future versions of SAARA to pick up objects with grippers, with the aim of enabling users to rely less on caregivers, and live more independently and with greater confidence.
Relsig Technologies mechanical engineer Maximilien Lim, 25, says: “Target users are those with sufficient motor skills to control a joystick on their motorised wheelchair, but difficulty reaching lift buttons and picking up objects.”
Technology for building robotic arms to help persons with disabilities already exists overseas, but it is expensive. The more advanced JACO arm from Kinova Robotics is available here for about $70,000.
The JACO arm, with either the two-or-three-finger options, can pick up objects, open doors and grasp objects, thereby assisting persons with upper extremity disabilities to go about daily activities more smoothly.
Relsig Technologies decided to build a cheaper alternative for use in Singapore. Half the funds for research and development for SAARA come from the TB-ELI Grant.
The remainder is contributed by Relsig Technologies. Collaborating with MDAS and Cerebral Palsy Alliance Singapore (CPAS), the company aims to secure about 15 end-users by this July, when the year-long project is expected to be completed. It has found seven users so far.
When SAARA is fully developed, Relsig Technologies intends to sell each unit for about $8,000 to $10,000.
About the TB-ELI Grant
The Tote Board–Enabling Lives Initiative (TB-ELI) Grant funds projects initiated by voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs), charities, non-profit organisations, social enterprises, institutes of higher learning and research institutes.
For commercial entities such as Relsig Technologies, funding is considered on a case-by-case basis. They are also required to partner a VWO to apply for the grant.
Mr Ng Herk Low, the assistant chief executive of SG Enable, says that the TB-ELI grant aims to support projects that have the potential to bring about meaningful social impact.
He says it brings together the expertise of VWOs, social enterprises and other organisations to create greater reach and impact.
Awarded by Tote Board, the $23 million grant is part of the overall $30 million TB-ELI implemented in collaboration with SG Enable and the National Council of Social Service (NCSS). The grants, which have been disbursed since 2015, will be given till 2020.
A Good Day Out Carnival
A family friendly inclusive carnival will be held at the Gardens by the Bay on Saturday to commemorate the Tote Board’s 30th anniversary this year.
It will feature music performances by Tote Board’s beneficiaries, as well as Singapore Symphony Orchestra, The Sam Willows, MICappella and Joanna Dong.
Participate in hands-on workshops, shop for merchandise and services from various social enterprises at the charity marketplace, and buy food from Metta Café and Pope Jai Thai, which are Tote Board’s social partners.
And even though Mr Eng will not be able to use SAARA just yet, he is looking forward to attending the event.
Event: A Good Day Out
When: Feb 10, 10am to 8pm
Where: The Meadow, Gardens by the Bay