Disability

The Bionic Indiana Jones Who Wants To Make Prosthetics Available To Everyone

After losing his right leg in an off-roading accident, National Geographic explorer Albert Lin has set off on a new adventure to bring prosthetics to all

You might think of Albert Lin as a “bionic Indiana Jones.” In his work as a National Geographic explorer for the network’s Los Cities series (available on Disney+), Lin has unearthed previously unknown ancient Mayan ruins in Guatemala, gone scuba diving to find evidence of the ancient island city of Nan Madol in Micronesia and sought lost treasure in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Instead of being armed with a pistol or a whip à la Jones, 39-year-old Lin’s tools of choice are more technological in nature: aerial drones equipped with 3D laser scanning technology called LIDAR that enables him to reveal secrets buried under dense jungle canopies for centuries, and cell phones and tablets to help him visualize the ancient landscape that lies before him. 

But he has other notable tools in his arsenal, too: a prosthetic leg he cheekily says makes him “bionic” and an stoppable urge to use technology to help others, especially fellow amputees, along their own incredible life journeys.

National Geographic’s Albert Lin.

A new path emerges

Four years ago in 2016, Albert Lin, lost his right leg from the knee down in an off-road vehicle accident that rattled his sense of adventure, which had already come to define his life in his 20s and 30s.

“When I lost my leg, all the sudden in my mind—oh man, I had all these dreams as a young father, taking my kids surfing or climbing or backpacking or biking—even just carrying my daughter on my shoulders,” he said. “And then all those things were in question. What was life like as an amputee?”

From his hospital bed, Lin combed the internet for examples of other amputees who were bold and adventurous. Among others, he was inspired by surfer/photographer Mike Coots, an amputee who was taking to the waves in Hawaii following a shark attack.

“Those initial moments when you’re facing a big life change, a lot is in doubt. You’re looking for models of how you can live.”

“Those initial moments when you’re facing a big life change, a lot is in doubt. You’re looking for models of how you can live,” said Lin.

Happily, National Geographic “didn’t miss a beat,” he said. Six months following his surgery, he received a call from his production team asking if he was ready to continue filming—and they didn’t start him out with an easy assignment.

“It was like, ‘We’re helicoptering into very remote parts. There’s a lost pyramid somewhere deep in the jungle; it’s like a two-day hike’,” he said. “‘We’ve got a bunch of machetes. We’ve got snake gaiters for everybody—Albert, you only need one snake gaiter now, because you only have one biological foot …’”

He laughs. Adventure was calling; who was he to waste any time waiting to answer?

Lin wants to bring affordable 3-D printed prosthetics to everyone with Project Lim[b]itless.

A unique vision for prosthetics

Throughout his travels across the globe, Lin has often encountered other amputees that don’t have access to the high-quality, well-fitted prosthetics that he does. There are approximately 40 million amputees in the world, yet only about 5 percent use an artificial limb.

Quality prosthetics are expensive and the people who create them are few, putting them out of reach particularly for people living in poverty. Fit is a big factor—the wrong fit can be painful, and people’s bodies change over time, creating an ongoing demand for new prosthetics.

“It just started becoming this very clear responsibility to do something about that if I had the access to some ideas,” he said. 

An engineer by training, Lin knew exactly where to turn. He pulled together a team of student researchers and scientists at the Qualcomm Institute’s Center for Human Frontiers at University of California at San Diego to help problem-solve. The result was Project Lim[b]itless

The team hopes to deliver affordable prosthetics to amputees using cell phones to help create a model of a residual limb (using technology similar to the mapping applications he uses while exploring ancient temples and jungle landscapes—the limb becomes “the artifact”), custom fitting a prosthetic and creating it with a 3D printer.

“The ultimate dream is to have kiosks where people bring their plastic to recycle and in the same kiosk, those plastics are being turned into pucks for 3D printing that literally gives somebody back their life,” he said.

Lin works as a National Geographic explorer for the network’s Los Cities series (available on Disney+)

Dancing all night on a $20 leg

So far the team is in its research phase, having printed several prototypes. In November 2019, the students raised funds to travel to India to meet with the world’s largest amputee-focused nonprofit organization: Jaipur Foot, which provides free artificial limbs to anyone who shows up.

The UCSD students learned a lot from observing the clinic’s work, and Lin hopes the groups will continue to collaborate in the future.

“We were all sitting there in these clinics learning firsthand the power of looking somebody in the eyes when they step up on their own limbs for the first time in years—decades maybe—the feeling of empowerment, which gives people back their mobility,” he said. “For me it was definitely a life-changing moment.”

Later in the trip, Lin debuted a prosthetic limb that the team had designed using a cell phone scan and less than $20 worth of materials. “You can’t get more proof of concept than dancing on a leg that you printed out yourself,” he said.

The team will seek new partnerships around the world, explore new materials and finesse production and design.

Lin is also a founding board member of the Right to Walk Foundation to advocate and help remove financial barriers to prosthetics for people who need them.

“We are all stories,” says Lin.

‘We are all stories’

Lin will resume his explorations soon following a summer close to home during the pandemic with his kids, 7 and 10, surfing, backpacking, rock climbing and raising two chickens. He is currently in the planning phase for his next National Geographic exploration.

“I’m going to go as hard as I can go, and I’m going to do that for my kids and I’m going to do that for the people out there that might have been sitting in the same position I was sitting in in my hospital bed wondering what my life was going to be like,” he said. “I want my kids to grow up with the right mindset that we can try anything, and in the very act of trying is in itself fun.”

“If we can make the world believe more in each other, then it’ll be a better place.”

He says he’s moved deeply by the conversations that arise when viewers see what he’s been able to accomplish, and he hopes to continue inspiring other amputees—much like surfer Coots did for him four years ago.

“Every time something like that happens, it becomes all of the reasons why I go into the jungle or I go onto a mountain. All that stuff basically comes back to that purpose, which is that we are all stories. Everyone has their own story. And the stories that we tell empower us. If we can make the world believe more in each other, then it’ll be a better place.”