Three clean-cut engineering students from Virginia Tech--Steve Deso, Stephen Ros and Noah Papas--worked evenings and weekends in the lab for months to build their robotic arm as part of a project required to graduate."We wasted our entire senior year--no partying," Deso says, and the others laugh. They had spent three years in class learning about Newtonian mechanics, solid mechanics and biomechanics, and hanging out together in their spare time."We were looking for something that would apply our skills," Ros says. They spotted an online article about the contest and joked about entering. It seemed too big a project at first, Deso recalls. They e-mailed Bar-Cohen."He said, â€Just go for it,´" and they did.
The three decided to use an artificial muscle called polyacrylonitrile, a gel imbued with fibers for strength. After burning through their $800 budget, they begged, pleaded, and scrounged parts and help. Unable to afford polyacrylonitrile, they synthesized it, starting with textile fibers donated by the manufacturer, Mitsubishi Rayon. A prosthetics company donated a metal elbow for the arm, and a body shop spray-painted it for no cost in maroon and orange, their school colors.