This week I’ve been reading about a robotics company from Bristol called Open Bionics. They make a prosthetic called the Hero Arm and I’m so impressed with the product and what they’re achieving that I wanted to write a quick piece about it.
The Hero Arm is a bionic arm designed for people with upper-limb differences whose arm ends below the elbow (approximately 70% of amputations 1)”The Promise of Assistive Technology to Enhance Activity and Work Participation” – https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK453290/). Making stuff like this is really serious engineering – even building a non-prosthetic hand is hard because you have something like 12 separate actuators and they all need to move very precisely at the same time.
If it’s wearable, then things like power supply, weight, water and noise all become issues, and then you have this hardcore hardware-software-hardware problem of mapping electrical signals generated by arm muscles into movements.
Anyway, Open Bionic have managed to produce one of these:
- which is the lightest on the market, but still has a full day’s battery life
- which they can sell for about half the price of competing products
- that can fit adults, but also children as young as 8
This last one is a huge deal – usually prosthetics for children cost about £60k. In an NHS trial back in 2017, Open Bionics used 3d scanning & 3d printing to bring the cost down to £5k (and the fitting-time down to 1 day) 2)”3D printed bionic hands trial begins in Bristol” – https://openbionicslabs.com/blog/open-bionics-and-the-nhs-launch-worlds-first-trial-of-3d-printed-bionic-hands-for-children. As a huge national organisation the NHS moves slowly, but they’re apparently looking at another trial this year 3)”OPEN BIONICS RECEIVES FURTHER FUNDING FROM SBRI HEALTHCARE” – https://www.eahsn.org/funding/2017/11/open-bionics-receives-funding-sbri-healthcare/ which is pretty cool.
Also, the Hero Arm can be personalised. There are different hand sizes and arm layouts depending on the person, but there’s also a range of different covers to choose from, and the colours can be customised4)”Open Bionics Shop” – https://www.shop.openbionics.com/. Open Bionics have deals with Disney, so you can get a star wars one or an iron man one.
Obviously there are super fancy prosthetics out there which can do more. They’re usually funded by millions of defence dollars and they can be controlled by your thoughts5)”Florida Man Becomes First Person to Live With Advanced Mind-Controlled Robotic Arm” – https://futurism.com/mind-controlled-robotic-arm-johnny-matheny, or they let you feel things by interfacing with your nervous system6)”Bioengineered robotic hand with its own nervous system will sense touch” – https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/11/171114092052.htm. But the Hero Arm is like, super impressive given its low price-point. Open Bionics came from a kickstarter, and they raised about £4 million this year to take the product to a wider audience7)”Open Bionics closes $5.9M Series A for its affordable and cool bionic limbs” – https://techcrunch.com/2019/01/14/open-bionics-closes-5-9m-series-a-for-its-affordable-and-cool-bionic-limbs/ – it’ll be interesting to see what they do next.
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