Engineering and Biology


Unlikely bedfellows, but the pairing is increasing with astounding results.

(See bottom of article for a chance to WIN a free eBook of your choice from IDC Technologies)

The term bionic was originally coined in 1958 by Jack Steele, an American who had both engineering and medical qualifications. It was, however, popularised by fiction; a novel inspired by Steele, called Cyborg and then based on this, a couple of films. But let us put Dr Who’s Cybermen and Star War’s Darth Vader aside, bionics or bionical creativity engineering has become a serious and determined pursuit in the real world.

Bionics (and affiliated terms) can be defined variously; but generally it refers to anatomical structures or physiological processes replaced or enhanced by electronic or mechanical (electromechanical) components. What follows will only touch on this emerging and rather remarkable science.

It is difficult not to feel a little awed by those involved in what is essentially man attempting to mimic, if not improve on, existing biology. Its projected extreme; to augment the military, for example, or to unfairly advantage an individual with an expensive bionic limb, does make many ethicists feel some trepidation.

Julian Vincent, professor of biomimetics, in the department of mechanical engineering, at the University of Bath estimates that, "there is only a 12% overlap between biology and technology in terms of the mechanisms used". It will be interesting to track this stat over the next few years.

When it comes to bionic limbs / prostheses, two newsworthy personalities come to mind. Both were born with defects that engineering has largely resolved; one with prosthetic legs and the other with a bionic arm. This is, however, where the similarities end.

The first individual is South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius, whose recent notoriety may to some degree be related to his disability. He was born with legs that were bent and missing some bones. After initial attempts to straighten them they were amputated at the knee when he was 11 months old. Despite this significant setback Pistorius made astonishing and laudable headway in the athletic world aided, of course, by clever engineering.

More recently his public appearances have been in the Supreme Court of Pretoria. The trial is endeavouring to determine his reasons for shooting and killing his girlfriend.

These court hearings are, however, not his first. In 2008 he was barred from competing in the Summer Olympics in Beijing, after the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ruled that the double-amputee runner's prosthetic legs, or J-shaped Cheetah Flex-Foot blades, gave him an unfair advantage over his ‘able-bodied’ peers.

Following this, before the 2012 London Games, a successful appeal in the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) allowed him to compete in the 400-meter sprint and 4x400 relay - making him the first amputee to race in the Olympics.

(The science behind the decision to let Pistorius race is fascinating in itself and worth a read. Visit to read this article)


The second individual is a quite different story. Alex Pring is an American six year old who was born with only a portion of his right arm. A group of engineering students at the University of Central Florida (UCF) decided to help the little chap.

With the aid of rapidly advancing technology in 3-D printing, together with their knowledge of bionics, they designed a working, robotic arm.

When Alex flexes his muscle, the motor in the bionic arm is activated and closes his hand. He is able to execute some gross motor skills, for example throwing a ball, and some fine motor skills which includes writing. But he must not get the arm wet.

The students (and university) kindly donated the arm that had cost them $350.00 to construct.

This story is heart-warming and the students certainly clever and deserving of commendation. I do believe, however, that the process has been somewhat trivialised.

For most recipients of bionic limbs the process is more complex. Generally a person is exposed to a trauma; involving a vehicle or machinery, for example. An amputation is required, before the design and attachment of the bespoke limb. Thereafter the cortex in the brain, nerves, electrodes and motor/s controlling the bionic limb all need to be interacting adequately to achieve the required responses.

Two facts facilitate ‘bionic arm’ technology. The first relates to the motor cortex in the brain (the area that controls voluntary muscle movements) which still sends out control signals even if certain voluntary muscles are no longer available for control.


The second relies on the doctors who perform the amputation; they need to ensure that working nerve stubs/endings remain intact so that the signals from the brain (which once sent information along these to the biological limb) can instead be transmitted to the bionic limb.

In other words, if a person's arm is gone, working nerve stubs that end in the shoulder need to be available. They will simply have nowhere to send their information, until the bionic arm is in place.

Some levels of trauma can complicate things further, however. A complex nerve redirection operation may be required. In this situation the nerve endings that control the movements of elbow, wrist and hand are redirected by a surgeon to a working muscle group – a set of chest muscles for instance.

A number of electrodes are then placed on the surface of these muscles. Each electrode controls one of the six motors that move the bionic arm joints. A successful movement will occur when a nerve ending receives a signal from the brain resulting in the contraction of the muscle it is connected to. The electrode situated on that muscle will detect this and move in tandem with this signal.

As each nerve-ending is integrated into a different piece of muscle on the healthy body the various motors in the prosthesis can be activated simultaneously, ensuring that the range of movement/motion in the limb is fairly natural.

In conclusion I must make amends. I may have sounded a little churlish brushing aside the efforts of the UCF students earlier. After all there is a family and child delighted with the outcome. A pleasure no doubt heightened by the altruism of the students and their university, neither the cost nor a fee were passed on to the family.

Another vitally important reason to applaud their efforts is for the sake of excellent education. These students will have learnt more from this; their real world venture, than from hours and hours of theoretical lecture time - even from the most proficient educators at their college. 

Well done UCF. I believe these graduates will make remarkable engineers.


 A question for you, intrepid readers:


Should athletes with bionic limbs compete with able-bodied competitors?


(A free IDC Technologies’ eBook of your choice will be sent to you if you provide me with a convincing argument, in less than 200 words). Email your convincing argument to this question to



If any of this has been of interest to you - in terms of professional and/or skill development, please consider the following:

EIT has scheduled its next Advanced Diploma of Remote Engineering, Mechatronics and Robotics for October 27, 2014 and registrations are now open.

It will cover:

  • The latest industrial Remote Engineering, Mechatronics and Robotics technologies.
  • Practical guidance from experts in the field.
  • 'Hands on' knowledge from the extensive experience of the instructors.

You will gain:

  • Credibility as a Remote Engineering/Mechatronics expert in your firm.
  • Networking contacts in the industry.
  • Improved career prospects and income.
  • An EIT Advanced Diploma of Remote Engineering, Mechatronics and Robotics.

And as we have covered bionics using 3D printers, look out for one of our newest online offerings which is still in its developmental phase: 3D Engineering Design and Printing for Rapid Prototyping

For details on the course content please contact us at

Also, the Advanced Diploma of Biomedical Engineering is scheduled for July 2015 and registrations are now open.

Thanks very much to the following sites for their assistance here: