Next Leap in Prosthetics: From Wooden Toes to Willed Control

Image courtesy of USF Health via Flickr. 

You’ve probably heard of open source software, but what about open source hands? How about robotic arms controlled by thought alone? 

Just a couple of clues that the (very near) future of prosthetics is ripe with promise.

A long time coming

At the dawn of this century, archeologists unearthed what we now believe to be the oldest prosthetic in existence: a skillfully crafted toe, still affixed to the foot of its mummified owner. For the last 3000 years, the manufacture of such devices has remained a highly specialized and often expensive process.

Even with today’s automation, modern prosthetics can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $100,000.

New developments within the field, however, promise to offer prosthetics that bear futuristic features and could be available at freefall prices.

The DIY approach

It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. Well, “mom” commonly shows up without warning, sometimes in the form of horrific table saw injuries.

According to NPR, this is the very stroke of bad luck that befell South African carpenter Richard Van As in 2011. After losing two fingers and too much time away from his work, Van As sought out the help of a puppeteer halfway around the world.

The puppeteer, Washington-native Ivan Owen, decided to apply his skills and help Van As develop a homebrew prosthetic hand, capable of grasping and releasing objects.

The pair were off and running thanks to a new 3D printer donated by the MakerBot company. With this tool, they were able to prototype and tweak their puppet-based design in a matter of minutes, as opposed to the week-long process they had employed before.

The plans for Richard and Ivan’s “Robohand” can now be downloaded free of cost and can be assembled for around $5 (provided you own or have access to 3D-printing equipment.)

Shown: Advancements in prosthetics throughout the years. Images courtesy of brockzilla, uwnews, and koo_pigeon via Flickr.

I’ve got your nose

3D printing is no longer limited to rigid, stiff forms like those used in Richard and Ivan’s Robohand. One company has devised a method in which softer, more malleable materials such as silicon can be utilized to custom print facial prosthesis (ear, eye, nose etc.), that possess a flesh-like realism.

With the aid of 3D scanning, their process removes the labor-intensive artistry and in doing so reduces the overall cost by 80-90%.

A printed “eye” from Fripp costs $160 and can be implanted within 48 hours, whereas a traditional model may cost upwards of $10,000 and take as many as 10 weeks of work to produce.

Futuristic functionality

When it comes to innovations within the field, the horizon has never looked brighter. A sci-fi-esque technology called “BrainGate” has already made enormous headway in pilot trials and claims to allow patients suffering from neck-down paralysis to control robotic limbs by thought alone.

The system interprets signals taken from the brain’s motor cortex and relays those instructions to a robotic arm. In a study published by Nature Science Journal, a stroke victim was able to pick up a nearby bottle and bring it to her lips, drinking without aid for the first time in 15 years.

The woman who participated in the study had lost functional mobility (her limbs were intact), though future trials will employ subjects who are amputees.

Production models may be further down the road, though if things continue at the current pace, devices such as wheelchairs may only exist within the pages of history books.

Soft Robotics

The emerging field of soft robotics also holds promise for new types of comfortable and dexterous synthetic limbs and prosthetic devices.

At Harvard, researchers  are developing a soft robotics exoskeleton for military use that may be re-purposed for civilian use in the future.  Researchers there have also prototyped a soft robotics prosthetic hand that uses a soft gripping motion to grasp objects.

 Startups and Prosthetic Themes

Open source prosthetic designs have also become available from startups such as Open Biotics, which focus on young amputees and low-cost robotic arms.  The startup has deals with major entertainment companies that enable children to get superhero themed robotic arms with character themes from Star Wars, Marvel and Disney.
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Caleb J. Haines