FEEL GOOD | Young scientist bags international award for 'mind-controlled' prosthetic hand

Farida Cajee at the 2020 Taiwan International Science Fair.
Farida Cajee at the 2020 Taiwan International Science Fair.
Supplied by Farida Cajee

Young scientist Farida Cajee, who won the second prize in the engineering category at the prestigious 2020 Taiwan International Science Fair (TISF) in Taipei in February, hopes to find a way to help amputees to not spend a fortune on prosthetics.

Cajee, 18, a matric pupil at Hoërskool Schweizer-Reneke in the North West, won the prestigious award at the National Taiwan Science Education Centre in Taipei last month.

Cajee impressed judges with her project, titled "Using electroencephalograph (EEG) neuro-feedback technology to control a prosthetic hand", which aims to be a more affordable prosthetic alternative. The project envisions that an EEG headset, which measures brainwaves, paired with a prosthetic hand made from recycled material, which is able to move based on thoughts.

Essentially, it's a "mind-controlled 3D-printed prosthetic hand" that aims to be a cheaper prosthetic alternative.

In an interview with News24 last year, the teen science boffin said the idea came when she had to prepare for the 2019 Eskom Expo for young scientists, which she had been taking part in for the last seven years.

A drive to bag the gold encouraged Cajee to do something different that would make a difference to society, while also being unique.

At the time, her mother was sick and her medical expenses were taking a toll on her family. That was when she, along with her mom, realised that something more biomedical-related would be ideal for the expo.

Uses brainwaves

"My project started simple because I wanted to prove that it could work, and at first, it didn't. It was such a mission to get the parts, figure out a control unit and to think how it was going to use brainwaves to work and still be cheap," Cajee said.

After conducting research for almost three months, she added, she eventually came across an EEG headset that measured brainwaves.

Cajee said she used the headset and brainwaves to concentrate and turned it into movement, but that was not enough. She went further and took the PET bottles that were lying around and recycled them to make a prosthetic hand.

"After the research, I bought myself an Arduino and connected it to the hand, programmed it, coded it and connected it to the headset; and it worked."

Cajee said the headset read brainwaves and, when one concentrated, the prosthetic hand opened and, when one relaxed, it closed. 

'So many people forced to live without prosthetics'

She said the main goal of the project was to lower medical costs. As it stands, her invention costs just R9 000 while a regular below elbow prosthetic in South Africa costs anything from R140 000 upwards.

"I saw war zone amputees and I figured that these people come back after having served our country and other countries as well, and they are saddled with medical bills because of their injuries. So many people are forced to live without prosthetics because they can't afford it."

She said a lot people have been trying to help her produce the prosthetics and to also start a company to produce it.

farida cajee

Farida Cajee in her school uniform. (Hein le Roux)

This week Cajee told News24 she had a great experience at the TISF.

"It wasn't only a competition - we also had time to do our own thing and explore the city. It was amazing."

She said experiencing a new culture was interesting and she even managed to learn some Mandarin.

"The temples were some of the most beautiful things I have ever seen."

Cajee is quite humble when asked about her extraordinary achievement. 

"I was super-surprised that I got second place, I was astonished. I didn't expect to get anything."

Main purpose is to help people

She said her interest in science started at a very young age.

"My main thing was wanting to help people - almost like a mini version of Princess Di. When I found out about the Eskom Science Expo in Grade 5, I immediately decided I wanted to take part."

She has participated in the expo every year since then and has always managed to take home an award. 

"But this was the first time I participated in an international competition."

Cajee said her prosthetic limb was invented for the purpose of helping amputees.

"I took my invention overseas and more researchers and scientists have seen what I can do. I know it might be easy for people to steal my idea, but as long as it helps people, I'm happy.

"For now, I want to focus on completing matric. After that, I'm planning to go into the health science field - any field where I can help people."

Cajee showcased her science project at the Eskom Expo for Young Scientists International Science Fair (ISF) in September last year, which is where she won her place to represent South Africa at the Taiwan fair.

"Eskom Expo has opened many doors for me. I've travelled halfway across the world, and would like to encourage other learners to take part at least once. It's the only place where nothing else matters besides your ideas. Every idea is genius and everything you do at the Eskom Expo will open doors for your studies and career,” she said.

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