Science, Science and Tech

Helping Hands: new developments in prosthetics

Losing a limb isn’t a prospect anyone would relish. Try to imagine any task you do daily as a matter of course in daily life, and then try to imagine carrying it out with only one hand. Cooking, cleaning, washing, typing, and myriad other chores become slow and difficult to near impossible. However, advancements in the field of prosthetics could soon give rise to a future where such an injury will be little more than an inconvenience.


Photo: Huffington Post

In May last year, 25 year old Aimee Copeland contracted a disease called necrotizing fasciitis, popularly known as “flesh-eating bacteria”. While surgeons were able to destroy the infection and save Aimee’s life, she lost both hands and a leg to the disease. The experience left her wheelchair bound and, lacking hands, nearly helpless without assistance. Fortunately, she has since been contacted by a company called Touch Bionics, an Ohio-based company specialising is top-of-the-range prosthetics. When Aimee agreed to be a spokesperson for the company, they donated to her a pair of cutting edge prosthetic hands, each worth $100’000, free of charge.

Called the i-Limb Ultra Revolution, the new hands differ from most other comparable prostheses, which are controlled by muscle contractions in the remaining sections of limb, as they are controlled by detecting chemical and bio-electric impulses through the skin. The thumb has a rotational range of movement, rather than the simpler claw grip motion of other models, and a mobile app allows movement of individual digits, and for the hand to be remotely shifted between different positions to perform different tasks, from an extended index finger for typing, to pinch and grip positions which can exert variable pressure depending on the task at hand.

The next story goes from high end performance, to availability to all. By now, most people will have heard of the concept of a 3D printer, which uses heated plastics to sculpt three dimensional objects. After a workplace accident, Richard Van As from South Africa lost the fingers of his right hand. He later got in touch with Ivan Owen, a props designer in Washington, USA, and between them began designing a prosthetic with the intention of allowing those without funds to buy prosthetics to obtain them. Upon hearing of their efforts, a company called Makerbot sent a 3D printer each to Van As and Owen. This made the design process much faster, as it had initially required Owen to make the prototypes in America and then mail them to South Africa for Van As to test. With the new printers, the two men were able to e-mail files with printing plans back and forth to be printed off, tested, and altered within the space of 20 minutes or so.

Once completed, and as had always been intended, the designs for the Robohand were uploaded to the website , made for the public sharing of 3D designs, and made the prosthetic a public domain for anyone to construct. One of the first recipients, five year old Liam, suffers from Amniotic Band Syndrome, which caused him to be born without any fingers on his right hand. He has since been fitted with his very own Robohand, which will be upscaled and remodelled as he matures. According to Owen, “From the experiments we’ve done, the force to break the plastic exceeds the strength of the human hand.” And with the designs now available to the public, many others could soon be benefiting from his, and Richards’, kindness.


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September 2021
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