Biomedical engineers at Newcastle University in the UK are preparing to trial a new generation of prosthetic limbs which will allow the wearer to reach for objects automatically and without thinking, just like a real hand.
This ‘intuitive’ hand ‘sees’ through a camera which takes a picture of the object in front of it to assess its shape and size before triggering a series of movements required to pick up the object.
Dr Kianoush Nazarpour, a Senior Lecturer in Biomedical Engineering at Newcastle University, said the bionic ‘hand with eyes’ allows the wearer to simply reach out and pick up the desired object with nothing more than ‘a quick glance in the right direction’.
“Prosthetic limbs have changed very little in the past 100 years – the design is much better and the materials’ are lighter weight and more durable but they still work in the same way,” Dr Nazarpour remarked.
“Responsiveness has been one of the main barriers to artificial limbs. For many amputees the reference point is their healthy arm or leg so prosthetics seem slow and cumbersome in comparison. Now, for the first time in a century, we have developed an ‘intuitive’ hand that can react without thinking.”
The team programmed the hand to perform four different ‘grasps’ including palm wrist neutral (such as when you pick up a cup); palm wrist pronated (such as picking up the TV remote); tripod (thumb and two fingers) and pinch (thumb and first finger).
Grouping objects by size, shape and orientation, the intuitive hand picks the most appropriate grasp within a matter of milliseconds, which is ten times faster than any other limb currently on the market.
“One way would have been to create a photo database of every single object but clearly that would be a massive task and you would literally need every make of pen, toothbrush, shape of cup – the list is endless,” Dr Nazarpour explained.
“The beauty of this system is that it’s much more flexible and the hand is able to pick up novel objects – which is crucial since in everyday life people effortlessly pick up a variety of objects that they have never seen before.”
He said the team are now working with experts at Newcastle upon Tyne Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust to offer the intuitive ‘hand with eyes’ for trial to patients at Newcastle’s Freeman Hospital.