Imagine the look on a child’s face when the impossible happens.

O.k., you can stop imagining now. That’s the look on the face of Alex Pring, an avid Marvel Superhero fan who was born without most of his right arm. He never imagined that movie star Robert Downey, Jr. would give him a life-changing prosthetic limb – but thanks to Orlando-based nonprofit Limbitless Solutions, that’s exactly what happened.

Albert Manero, Ph.D. graduate of the University of Central Florida’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, created Alex’s new arm along with a team of his colleagues. That team eventually become Limbitless Solutions, which works to provide children with bionic limbs. These prosthetic devices are manufactured with 3-D printing technology, allowing the limbs to be custom crafted for each child – because no two hands or arms are alike. 3-D printing also makes the cost to produce less expensive and more affordable.

Limbitless Solutions is now changing lives for children around the world, giving them the opportunity to live life to the fullest. Manero envisions one day working with the U.N. and UNICEF to set up 3-D stations around the world, so children everywhere can benefit from the technology.

The University of Central Florida impressed upon me the importance of outreach, leading me to pursue opportunities to impact the development of students and my community through engineering.

Albert Manero
Limbitless Solutions
Founder and President of Limbitless Solutions, Albert Manero, adjusts straps on a child’s bionic arm

Alex’s story proved to the world that dreams really do come true in Orlando. But Iron Man’s visit was prophetic in more ways than one: Orlando has been known for making futuristic technologies a reality since Walt Disney choose to bring magic to life in the happiest place on earth.

Limbitless Solutions is on its fourth generation of bionic arms and pioneering the first U.S. clinical trial for 3D-printed prosthetics for children. The clinical trial will determine if the devices can be covered by insurance, increasing affordability and accessibility to the technology.

Bionic limbs are just one example of innovations emerging from UCF’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, which had 90 patents issued in 2016 and ranked No. 22 Best University for Technology Transfer in 2017.

New technology applications combined with a culture of “big ideas” in Orlando have sparked science-fiction inspired inventions in the field of human augmentation – including ONYX, the “Iron Man”-like lower-body exoskeleton being developed at Lockheed Martin’s Missiles and Fire Control (MFC) facility, under the New Initiatives directorate of Advanced Programs.

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Lead exoskeleton engineer Gavin Barnes, like Manero, is a UCF Mechanical Engineering graduate. Barnes, along with a team of engineers in Orlando, is developing exoskeleton technology to improve human mobility – technology that could not only assist soldiers and first responders, but also has healthcare applications for handicapped individuals.

“It’s fantastic technology,” said Barnes in an interview with the Orlando Sentinel. “Everyone wants to be a superhero.”

The exoskeleton suit is mechanical structure worn on the legs, containing sensors and motors.  It uses these to determine how a user is moving, then applies force to their body to make walking on stairs and inclines easier. For a soldier or first responder, this could mean getting to a victim faster or saving their endurance for a critical moment.

ONYX medres 4
Lockheed Martin ONYX technology

But for Barnes, it could also mean helping his sister, who was born with spina bifida. He relates, “if she had an exoskeleton, she would never need a wheelchair again.”

Innovative technologies like bionic arms and exoskeleton legs paint a bright future for healthcare and human augmentation, creating a world that looks a little bit more like the Marvel Universe. While these medical device inventions are changing lives around the globe, the imagination to make these fantastical dreams come true could only be found in Orlando.