Bushnell teen designs, builds and codes mind-controlled robotic arm

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By Brenda Locklear

Bushnell teen and South Sumter senior designs, builds and codes a mind-controlled robotic arm with future plans of entering medical engineering. The story from the March 28, 2017 issue of the Sumter County Times is here, along with a video of Cilenti moving the arm with a combination of thought process, mechanical engineering and computer coding (below).


Using computers to create new mechanical arm

It’s not spoon-bending and ESP transmission from the 1970s, but it sure might make you stop and go ... “hmmm”

So just imagine sitting in a chair and watching a pinky finger on a 3-D printed arm bending to a close - all because you were commanding it with your mind - from the other side of the room - or at least from the other side of the desk.

That’s life for Joey Cilenti and he’s hoping it’s also his future. He wants to specialize in bio-medical engineering.

Cilenti started his current project about a year and a half ago, he said, noting he created his design for an arm, utilizing a computer program, then put it into another application to actually print the arm in plastic.

He said received a grant for a headset and USB that works with an application to read brain waves.

“When you think about something, your brain waves will appear on the screen,” he said of the program, adding that it allows for tracking of each brain wave individually.

“When I think about something, I would correspond a certain set of my brain waves,”

Utilizing the program, Cilenti assigned a letter to the motion of each finger and the wrist.

After all, the computer “just processes information.”

He assigned the letters y and h to the wrist, “allowing the wrist to move 180 degrees one way and then 180 degrees the other.”

“When I would think about something I would correspond a certain set of brain waves to remember those waves,” he said.

For example, as his brain waves went through their motion to open or close his hand, he would picture a letter of the alphabet. He then assigned each a specific letter to each action.

“I thought about letters in the alphabet and the way they were drawn. Thinking about the way a letter is written seems to produce a higher amount of brain activity.”

It was a time consuming process, writing and thinking about code for each finger as it opened and closed, as well as the wrist turning.

Cilenti said he alternated his colors simply for design appearance. The arm has several motors - one for each finger and one for the wrist to allow them all separate movement.

“Everything can operate independently,” he said Rather than thinking about a letter, he would think about the way it was drawn, correlating that brain wave process with the opening and closing of the pinky.

He had to do that for each area he wanted to control movement in.

“It took a while.”

“I used fishing line - it works the best for inside the arm. It doesn’t stretch and doesn’t have that rubber coating on the outside of it,” he said, adding there’s less resistance.

The arm required a lot of sanding and some hardware and screws.

Since visiting Walter Reed National Medical Center in Maryland, he’s decided he definitely wants to pursue a more military route in his career with engineering.

He met Col. Paul Pasquina, director of rehabilitation at the center, along with some of the staff of prosthetic designers.

“Just seeing the work they do.”

He enjoys working with his hands, engineering and said he’s been doing robotics a long time now.

Now nearing the end of his senior year, he said started the arm project in the middle of his junior year.

Part of the time span was waiting for the school to get a 3-D printer, which is where he started printing. Linda and Ronnie Graves ended up purchasing a vehicle shed from his dad’s Sun Agribusiness and the opportunity to print on a higher quality printer at the Grave’s prosthetic research company came up. Through that system, he was able to create the higher quality arm.

He said the parts were more sturdy and more human-like.

This isn’t the first time Cilenti has made the news, through photos and events more recently, but when he was only 12, he was already working with his hands, teaching himself drums and well into Popular Mechanics. Back then, the Sumter County Times interviewed Joey and his younger brother, Jonah, because of a television antenna that Joey built. He’s the son of Eunice and Charles Cilenti who have worked to raise their two sons into well-rounded young men.

He also taught himself to play drums and was a member of the AAA World Series Little League winning team in 2010.

The opportunity to visit Walter Reed came during their senior trip.

Mrs. Cilenti said Joey told her the surgeon general’s office was calling him on the phone.

She said she told him, “I doubt that they’re calling a high school senior from Bushnell.”

But they were and that’s when Joey got his chance and defined his future plans.

She said the visit to the medical center was exciting for them and that what they’re doing is what Joey has been doing, but he’s done it on a much tighter budget. She said his pitch with the arm is cost. It typically costs $150,000 to create a prosthetic arm and while his isn’t as high tech, he made it for $800.

He’s been tinkering with robotics since seventh grade, his interest, knowledge and ability growing, according to his mom. Even the current project began as an arm, but now it’s up to the shoulder, which twists and turns, she said.

Cilenti, a teacher at the high school and their robotics club sponsor this past year, said she may “make Joey ask more questions,” but what her son is doing is “way above my thinking capacity. This is all him.”

And his dad ... she said it’s her husband Charles that’s been the big influence in leading the boys in science.

“Charles is the one who sparked their interest,” noting they bought them a little engine that they all put together, when the boys were younger.

Joey has also gotten community support. Mrs. Cilenti said when Joey began the project, a piece broke on the 3-D machine and stopped progress, while Joey tried to save money to fix it.

Science teacher Emily Keeler took the top five science fair projects to present to the Wildwood Rotary Club and one club member came forward and funded the needs for him to continue. When the member realized there was a problem with the printer and Joey finishing his project, that person wrote a check and they continue to support the work. He keeps them updated.