Desineni Subbaram Naidu owns an academic background that reads like fine print in its density. It includes time spent working on guidance and control systems for NASA and almost 20 primary areas of teaching and research.

He is worldly and accomplished. And equally humble.  

On Wednesday, the blue-blazered Naidu appeared as modest as the small engineering lab he was standing in as he allowed his students to take center stage. They were there to discuss their work on five-finger robotic prosthetic hands. For every demonstration, Naidu made sure to pull back the curtain to reveal his students pulling the levers.   

“We want the Duluth community to see all UMD is doing,” Naidu said. “It’s a public institution after all.”

Using 3D printers, virtual reality and a group of electrical engineering students, Naidu is continuing five years of research to attempt to make cost-effective yet still elegant prosthetic hands.

The goal, Naidu said, is to construct something that will appeal to users - and insurance companies.

But their collective motivation is simple, too: The world could use them.  

“I am from Syria,” said grad student Ibrahim Baz Khallouf. “There is war in Syria. Many people back home experience challenges from having lost their limbs to the war.”

Naidu began his work on robotic prosthetic hands during his 14 years at Idaho State University in Pocatello. There, he used U.S. Department of Defense funding. While fewer soldiers were dying in modern warfare, he said, the loss of limbs remained prevalent. The Defense Department called for work on a hand for its wounded soldiers that could play the piano. It was a bold bar to set and, at $2.25 million, Naidu’s was a modest grant that was pulled before he could see it all the way through.

Naidu came to UMD last August to continue his research with an endowment from Minnesota Power.

Other places, like Johns Hopkins University, have $30 million project budgets, he said, as they work to splice the human neurology into prosthetic technology. These bionic breakthroughs require delicate and complex surgeries and $100,000 prosthetics and remain only in research stages.

Naidu and company are trying to reach the commercial market with a product that will be less theoretical and more accessible.

“We’re trying to find a balance,” said Austin Carter, an electrical engineering undergraduate.

Carter explained there is a current and popular five-finger hand that costs just a few dollars and can grasp objects once pressed onto something, like an apple. But it’s utterly inefficient and requires the user’s other hand to manipulate the prosthetic to do things like release the apple.

The key to the Naidu team’s research is in the control; they’re writing computer programs and employing servos as tendons. It’s incredibly sophisticated and academic but also backbreaking work. Grad student Syed Salik Hafeez said the students finish their school days by working long nights on the research. But they enjoy it.

“It’s a great opportunity for us,” Hafeez said, citing Naidu’s deep knowledge and reputation.

As they all spoke, the 3D printer operated quietly in the background. Back and forth it went, laying down one layer at a time on a rather unsexy base piece for the next research hand. The team is working with its second generation of a white hand that looks like something Isaac Asimov would have imagined.

Now deep into Naidu’s research, it’s the 3D printer that will make things more affordable, they all say.

“We’ll do our best,” Hafeez said, “to put this out commercially.”