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A Tale of Two Bionic Men

If you’re a frequent reader here, you’ll know that one of our top tech themes is the fast-growing field of robotics.

In fact, we’ve got an entire section dedicated to some of the remarkable innovations in robotics on this website!

For years, authors and Hollywood filmmakers have featured robots in their work. And while this isn’t a scientific count, I’d bet that most books and films focus on the dark, evil side of robots.

I mean, it just makes for a better story that way, right?

Until now, that is…

The Rise of the Friendly Robots

As technology advances, robotics is one area that’s enjoyed significant progress.

And a field once largely reserved for industry, manufacturing, and factory automation since the 1960s has now spilled into the consumer area, with robots increasingly used in hospitals, defense, farms, oceans, space, and the home.

In the healthcare sector, robotics is giving newfound independence to people who’ve sadly lost it, due to injury or illness.

For example, we’ve seen incredible robotic exoskeletons that are allowing paralyzed people to walk again. Some can even read your mind.

And for amputees, the outstanding progress in creating bionic limbs has restored touch and functionality to two more patients…

The Bionic Hand That Can “Feel”

One of them is Igor Spetic, who lost his right hand in an accident four years ago.

He was initially fitted with a bionic prosthetic hand, but the design was limited and Spetic still couldn’t feel objects. Needless to say, without a precise sense of touch, it was very difficult to judge how much force to exert on a given object.

But scientists at Case Western University have solved that issue by fitting electrical sensors to the hand. In surgery, these sensors were attached to the active nerves, where they delivered the appropriate signals to the hand.

But how?

For that, the Case Western team used a computer formula to identify different levels of sensations and stimulation that the nerves receive. They then linked those feelings to 19 areas of the hand (i.e., the palm, thumb, fingertips, etc.) and matched the different stimulations to the sensors.

They repeated the method for matching up the amount of force and pressure to be used when handling objects, as well as being able to tell the difference between certain items. For example, Spetic can now distinguish between sandpaper and Velcro.

It’s no short-term fluke, either.

The BBC reports that Spetic has used the bionic hand effectively for over two years now, while another patient has had it for 18 months. Team leader, Professor Dustin Tyler, says they’re both able to “do really fine, delicate tasks.”

Moreover, “We believe that within five to 10 years, we’ll have a system completely implanted. They’d have the procedure to put electrodes on each nerve and a device for their pocket, so that when they turn it on, they can feel their hands.”

Meantime… over in Sweden…

The Bionic Arm That’s an Extension of the Patient… Literally

Ever heard of osseointegration?

It doesn’t matter if you haven’t. In short, it basically means fusing an implant directly to an existing bone.

And in an equally remarkable advance in bionics, that’s exactly what researchers at Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology have done to attach a bionic arm to an amputee.

In doing so, the arm uses the nerves and muscle left behind from the amputation to give the patient more control.

As Dr. Max Ortiz Catalan says, “Reliable communication between the prosthesis and the body has been the missing link for implementation of neural control and sensory feedback.”

But by attaching the arm directly the body’s existing skeleton and working functions, it produces more seamless integration and, in turn, better control and what Catalan calls, “mechanical stability.”

When it comes to bionic limbs, this stability, control, and sense of touch are critical in restoring lost functionality – and independence to patients who crave it.

Cheers,

Martin Denholm

Martin Denholm

, Managing Editor

View More By Martin Denholm