Capstone Project Brings a Team of Five Engineering Students from Northeastern University to a Farm in Rumford, Maine

Farmer in tractor cabOn a cold, blustery November day recently, a group of mechanical engineering students from Northeastern University came to a farm in Rumford, Maine to meet Robert Cameron, a farmer with a transradial amputation. The visit was a “test-drive” of a simple, flexible system the team devised to modify tractor controls so that a person with a prosthesis can control hydraulics, adjust the throttle, work the hitch and use the steering wheel. The students needed design feedback and design validation, and they got it.

The visit was the culmination of several months of research, design, and material work for their capstone project. The students wanted to find a problem that could be solved with simple machinery and provide a functional solution given the time and resources available to them. Their initial interest with prosthesis led them to the National AgrAbility Project (NAP). Perusing the NAP website with its online Toolbox,the students identified an unmet/underserved need for modifications designed for farmers with prosthetic devices.

The students came up with a new design for the terminal device to replace the prosthetic hook. The terminal device fits into and adaptor made of UHMW (ultra high molecular weight polyethylene, on a 3-D printer), which is mounted onto controls using metal clamps. The clamps are attached to the tractor joystick controls. The idea is a flexible design that can work with many types and models of tractors without big expensive modifications. In addition, the students came up with adapter for the steering wheel.

The students spent aboutpeople looking into tractor cab talking with farmer an hour attaching the adaptation cups onto the various levers on Robert’s tractor. Then Robert climbed into the driver’s seat and put the system through its pace — raising and lowering the bucket, going forwards and backwards, whipping the steering wheel around. The students made some adjustments — tightening the connection between the attachments and changing the angle of the metal clamps — and Robert took off again.

Design discussion with farmer“Would he use it?” asked the students, coming inside from the cold and warming up with hot chocolate “Yes,” answered Robert. He could see practical applications, especially if you could actually replace the knobs on the tractor’s joysticks and keep the levers at the correct angles. He loved the steering wheel knob. It was a cold day, and he found he couldn’t zip up his vest without his hook — so not all adaptations work for all purposes. It was a day well spent, with meaningful interchanges between Robert, an enthusiastic and inspiring group of students, and AgrAbility staff.

group photo
Design team and Robert — check out their video by clicking on this photo!

They are developing a website if you would like to follow the progress of the students’ work and make it a reality.