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Jakarta Post

Indonesian student kick-starts robot venture

  • Duncan Graham

    The Jakarta Post

Yogyakarta   /   Tue, December 4, 2018   /   08:37 am
Indonesian student kick-starts robot venture Breakthrough: Muhammad “Fahmi” Husaen poses with his invention, AVEO (Achilles Physiotherapy Orthosis) as shown in a close-up position on the right photo. The computer program and information systems student at Gadjah Mada University will showcase his invention in South Korea this month. (Courtesy of Erlinawati Graham/-)

Life has given Muhammad “Fahmi” Husaen a cruel punt. Now he’s booting back with an invention best described as a robot physiotherapist, so smart it knows when leg muscles need a rub and roll to ward off paralysis. 

Fahmi, a 21-year-old computer program and information systems student at the Gadjah Mada University’s (UGM) Vocational School, has already won awards for an electric car design, but his latest concept is far more significant.

It’s called AVEO (Achilles Physiotherapy Orthosis) and it will get its first public showing at an inventors’ fair in South Korea this month. 

Fahmi is one of 10 young disabled Indonesians supported with education scholarships from the New Zealand Rehabilim Trust, a NGO based in the capital Wellington.

It was started in 1982 by the late Colin McLennan, a Kiwi social activist. Outraged when he saw crippled beggars in Yogyakarta streets, he set up the Yakkum rehabilitation center, now backed by European charities.

“Designing AVEO is a tremendous achievement,” said Trust chair Bill Russell. “We are very proud of Fahmi who is fast becoming an inspiration and role model.”

Most importantly, Russell said, Fahmi was showing that he could make a valuable contribution to society and help others struggling to deal with their own handicaps. “This is exactly what the Rehabilim Trust is all about — providing young people in Indonesia with physical disabilities the opportunity and support to receive tertiary education and qualifications to become independent.” 

Before entering primary school, Fahmi was told he had Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD). The rare and so far incurable genetic disorder leads to progressive muscle degeneration and weakness. 

Life expectancy seldom went beyond the teens but new treatment is prolonging survival, though not dramatically. DMD affects around one in 5,000 boys. Girls rarely suffer. Two of Fahmi’s three brothers have similar disorders.

If Fahmi had less spirit and more anger he’d be raging at the world from the wheelchair he’s used since he was 10. Fury erupted when reality hit, then subsided when he realized “this is part of my life”.

“I refused to go to high school for a year because I was so upset,” he said. “But my mother [high school science teacher Anik Marwati] asked: ‘If you don’t go to school, what will you do?’ And I had so many ideas.”

With whatever time he has left, Fahmi is using every moment positively.

He got his mom’s message, ignored the schoolyard taunts and excelled. He saw a video of General Electric Indonesia CEO Handry Satriago, now 49, who has been in a wheelchair since contracting lymph cancer as a teen.

Apart from his achievements with the United States manufacturing conglomerate, Satriago is famous for urging youngsters to adapt, overcome hurdles and create a better world.

“He inspired me with his determination and confidence,” said Fahmi. “Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. It’s important to stay optimistic, to not give up, to ignore snide comments about handicaps as a divine punishment for sins.

“No religion teaches that sort of thinking.”

Another hero is Stephen Hawking. The British theoretical physicist and cosmologist died earlier this year aged 76 after spending most of his life in a wheelchair suffering from motor neuron disease — but continued writing and lecturing.

Now Fahmi is turning his personal experiences to benefit humanity by inventing AVEO with two fellow students, Danar Aulia Hasan and Widiyanto.

“I know well that it’s difficult for people in wheelchairs to get out and see a physiotherapist — and they’re not easy to find,” Fahmi said. “Advances in technology have created new opportunities to help give the handicapped choices and independence.”

Fahmi is one of six Indonesians to be invited to the Seoul International Invention Fair to show AVEO. He’ll be accompanied by his mother and two classmates.

The fair, first held in 2002, is the largest international invention exhibition in Asia. It is hosted by the Korean Intellectual Property Office and organized by the Korea Invention Promotion Association. 

“We are working on our third prototype,” Fahmi said. “Battery weight is a problem and the flexible shoe needs to be lighter — it’s presently around 2 kilos. Eventually it will be linked to the user’s smartphone so progress can be monitored.

“I don’t know how much AVEO will cost as further development is needed — maybe about Rp 2.5 million [US$175] a unit, though costs will fall with mass production.

“Society needs to do more to help the disabled. Access to many buildings, and the services they offer, is limited. Fortunately, public attitudes are changing — as they say in Australia, ‘see the person, not the problem’.”

Although UGM is one of the nation’s leading universities, its facilities for physically impaired students are far below international standards. There’s no lift in the building where Fahmi studies so he has to rely on colleagues to carry him up and down stairs.

Having a handicapped child can put huge burdens on a family, often resulting in marriage splits as parents play the blame game. 

Marwati said she told her husband Murtandlo (a teacher of religion) he could leave and find another wife when they learned their sons were disabled. “He refused,” she said. “He told me: ‘This is something we must handle together as a family’.”