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5th February 2015

From wrought iron to real-time feeling – The evolution of bionic hands

When news came out on clinical trials of a bionic hand that can feel, I decided to find out more. And while going through all the high-tech, robotic, and trans-human articles I turned the other way and took a peek into the past.

I ended up with a folder on my desktop just packed with articles, some receiving an appreciative nod, others earning a jaw-drop. Humanity’s drive to do better has been one of its greatest qualities; the development of artificial limbs is a clear example of that.

Early moderns on the move

Necessity is the mother of invention. During a time of almost constant wars and battles, the Dark Ages and the Renaissance gave rise to amputations executed by the hundreds. The artificial hand in the picture dates back to the 1500s. What makes it stand out, is that it’s not only a mean of covering the missing arm, but most probably also included a mechanical device inside which enabled the movement of the fingers.

A few hundred years later, the American Civil War urged science and technology to turn towards prosthetics once again and place focus on dynamics and comfort. The hand in this image was able to move in multiple ways: the wrist could rotate to a certain degree and move up and down, the fingers could tighten and release, and by using materials available at the time the limb was lighter and hence more comfortable.

Introducing ‘bionic’ in the 1980s

Real break-through in motion and bionics came in the 1980s. The first myoelectric arm was created by Motion Control in 1981, called the Utah arm. Myoelectric basically means that the power needed to move the prosthesis is supplied by muscles. By 1988, these artificial arms were fitted regularly across Europe and North America. They were durable, dependable, and affordable: one of the best solutions for amputees for a while to come.

The Go-Go years in prosthetics: 2005-2009

Technological revolutions, more funding, and a change in mind-set all contributed to some amazing advancements in the 21st century. The first time when each finger could move independently with a set of motors, came in 2005, thanks to physicist Paul H Chappell who created the “clever “artificial hand. The hand was the first to have an opposable thumb, critical for precise grips and holds.

iLimb, by Touch Bionics became the first commercially available bionic arm with articulating fingers in 2007. A few years on, iLimb was equipped with some more “comfort characteristics” including a mobile app, 24 pre-installed grip and gesture types, and a rotating thumb among others.

The ‘Luke arm’ project led by Star Wars fanatic Dean Kamen was ready for clinical trials by the beginning of 2008. One of the most interesting features was the way it gave motion to the limb: by sensor pads placed on the feet.

Raphael was introduced in 2009, precisely the Robotic Air Powered Hand with Elastic Ligaments. Developers used air pressure to create movement. Quite accurately too, the hand was able to grab, hold, and even create the delicate movements needed for sign language.

As everything became ‘smart’ in 2009, prosthetics kept pace with the ‘Smarthand’, introduced in October which restored feeling. Tests showed that volunteers could sense a feeling of grabbing or holding in their artificial fingers when using the prosthetic.

Sci-fi of the 2010s

With prototypes launched in earlier 2000s, and now currently available for personal use, bionic hands today have some mind-blowing features: they can grip in dozens of different ways ranging from handling eggs, to crushing a coke can; some are equipped with auto grip sense which adjusts and secures a grip if an object is slipping away; bearing multiple sensors all over the device enhances its performance; or rotating – to mention a few.

Concerning aesthetics, technology now enables scientists to develop prosthetic silicone covers which give a very natural feeling to the device including details such as the patient’s skin tone, freckles, or even fingerprints.

Feeling 2014

Recently, a new advancement was introduced which left us in awe. A bionic hand that can feel! Commercialization still further down the road the break-through of restoring real-time feeling for an amputee was made possible by embedding electrodes to the nerves of the patient and connecting them to the prosthesis. The Volunteer for the trials could test the force of his grip (a mug versus a grape), the shape and even the stiffness (as soft as a foam block) of the objects at hand.

What’s next?

This is where we stand now: another breakthrough for medtech, a possible near-future milestone for amputees. And I‘m curious to see what comes next: neuro-command giving amputees a possibility to control their artificial limb with their thoughts, customized 3D printed solutions, enhanced abilities.

So again: Humanity’s drive to do better has been one of its greatest qualities; it’s not sci-fi anymore, it’s the artificial hand that can feel, and Luke will have to follow soon.

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