More than a billion people around the world have some sort of disability: how can aerospace technologies be applied to help them? That is the purpose that drives Airbus innovator Christophe Debard.
Diagnosed with cancer at age 12, he had his leg amputated at 13. “There was a lot of sadness in my family,” Debard says. “I realised I was the only person who could make them feel confident in the future again. Since then, I have stayed positive in every aspect of my life.”
Inspired by meeting other people in similar situations, Debard has made a dedicated effort in recent years to change the way people look at amputees. At the 2018 edition of VivaTech, he talked about how we can make a difference through volunteering and explained the work of Airbus ProtoSpace in Toulouse and the team around it.
The story began at Toulouse’s FabLab festival in May 2017 with his first prototype: a 3D-printed, custom-made aesthetic prosthetic leg.
“Some people want to hide their prosthesis. I want them to see that it can become a strength instead of a weakness. They can customise it and use it to reaffirm their personality.”
Christophe Debard, Head of Airbus ProtoSpace
His motivation is echoed by Thibault Archambault, who works at Airbus Space Systems. Over a year and a half ago, Archambault attended Airbus’ ‘Fabrikarium’ initiative, a 3-day event in which employees with different skill sets collaborated to develop 9 innovative solutions identified by the My Human Kit (MHK) association.
Archambault was there to make good on a Christmas promise to his mother, who had lost her sight during an operation and was learning to make her way around with a cane.
MHK volunteers had created a wrist-mounted sonar glove device that helps navigate complex environments, and Archambault further developed this during the event. “Based on a concept created by US inventor Steve Hoefer, our sonar glove uses ultrasound to detect objects from about 2 cm to 3.5 metres away,” he says. “The closer your hand comes to the obstacle, the higher the vibration frequency in the glove.”
Debard and Archambault are true believers in the maker culture, which emphasises learning through doing in a social environment and combines digital manufacturing technology with a do-it-yourself approach.
So it makes sense that they were working to develop affordable, open source-based prosthetics and equipment. While current aesthetic prostheses for legs can cost more than €1,500, Debard and Archambault’s innovations will only cost around €50.
During the 52nd Paris Air Show, Airbus hosted a conference on diversity aimed at changing the way people view disability. Inspiring speakers like Dorine Bourneton, first disabled woman aerobatics pilot, or Christophe Debard, Project Leader of "Print my Leg", show that being disabled does not mean not being able.
Joining Debard’s ProtoSpace community of Airbus makers is Fabien Saint-Lannes, an engineer on the A380 and A350 XWB, who lost his leg in a biking accident in 2008. After a friend introduced him to rowing in 2012, Saint-Lannes threw himself into the sport, and he recalls how it positively shaped his recovery.
“Rowing brought me a lot of maturity, it’s been so good for me and my job: I learned that if you have a goal, you have to practice and work at it every day – it’s been a good life lesson for me.” In 2016, Saint-Lannes won the gold medal at the World Rowing Championships.
Saint-Lannes and Debard met at a sports day hosted by their mutual prosthetist in Toulouse, where the doctor’s clients gather to race on their running blades, for example, and network. As the two discussed Debard’s innovative prosthesis project and Saint-Lannes’s rowing competition, a collaboration to build Saint-Lannes a new rowing leg was born.
“The prosthesis I use for rowing was designed for the sport, but it doesn’t have the design work or deeper thought about the athlete’s needs,” says Saint-Lannes. “Our goal is to develop something with more balance, more power. I’m lucky enough to both be part of a small niche of disabled competitive rowers and have access to Airbus design and engineering tools.”
Ultimately, the rowing prosthesis project has two aims: to develop a tailor-made, state-of-the art prosthesis and to dive into open-source development methodology, ensuring accessibility by utilising recycled and 3D-printed materials.
“This new open-source methodology gives human value to the project,” says Saint-Lannes. “If we can show that it’s possible, we’re a good example to inspire others to develop in the same way.”
Debard and his growing group of Airbus makers – which he calls Lab for Human concept – are capitalising on Airbus’ rich resources to collaboratively explore disruptive innovations in areas such as disability, the environment and humanitarian actions.
ProtoSpace is a set of units organised as a network throughout Airbus, serving as a platform for all employees to accelerate their innovation. It is inspired by the maker movement of the Fab Labs and the start-up principles of Google Ventures.
One of Debard’s latest initiatives is aiding an association called E-Nable, whose goal is to foster acceptance of children with disabilities among their peers, transforming adversity into an opportunity. Debard and the ProtoSpace team will collaborate to introduce Airbus employees to 3D printing so they can build free, easy-to-assemble, colourful mechanical hands for children in need.
Once the initiative gets off the ground, the aim is to expand throughout the ProtoSpace network in the UK, Spain, Germany, the US and India. As Debard sums up, “We are proud to contribute to changing the way people look at disability.”
Airbus supports the Decent work and economic growth and Industry, innovation and infrastructure UN Sustainable Development Goals. The targets of these goals include promote policies that support productive activities, decent job creation, entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation, and encourage the formalisation and growth of SMEs, as well as support domestic technology development.