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Robotic Hand August 24, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Bionics.
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More cool things from the world of robotics.   A high speed robot hand from Ishikawa Komuro Lab’s.  The part with the cell phone is particurally impressive.   It is important to point out that this is a robot hand, not a prosthetic one.  This hand is not designed to be used by a human but it is a step in that direction.


Running Robot August 10, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Bionics, Transhumanism.
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Now this is cool.  As far as I can tell this is the first demonstration of a robot actually running.  That’s even more impressive when you realize just how hard running as a movement actually is.  We take it for granted because most of us can do it fairly well but bipedal running is an incredibly complex movement.   To illustrate this think of two seemingly very different populations: young children and the elderly.  Both groups often suffer from a lack of strength, balance and coordination (though for very different reasons) and as such have similar running characteristics; they run more slowly, take shorter strides, often point there toes outward and generally have a much more inefficient running motion.  Compare this to a healthy adults running motion and it becomes apparent that a certain amount of physical ability is necessary for running to become a practical means of conveyance and the fact that these designers have accomplished that is impressive to say the least.

Now before we all start worrying about Terminators chasing us down it’s important to note that this robot is not at a human’s level when it comes to running.  The flight phase, the time when both feet are off the ground, is pathetically short by our standards and the designers don’t seemed to have solved the problem of counterbalance when the robot runs.  Notice how the torso has to turn side to side in order to keep the robot from falling whereas most humans can perform the same function using only the arms.  Still those are relatively minor problems when you realize how far the technology has already come.  I look forward to the first robot sprinter winning the 100m dash in the 2016 Olympics, or more seriously I look forward to this technology being used in improved prosthetic designs that allow amputees to live better lives.

One Step Closer to Fully Functional Prosthetics May 14, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Bionics.
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Technology Review has a very interesting article about a new surgical technique that is giving arm amputees a chance to regain most of their lost mobility.

The technique, called targeted muscle re-innervation and developed by Todd Kuiken of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago’s Center for Bionic Medicine, involves transplanting surviving arm motor nerves into other parts of the body, most commonly the chest.  These nerves then function much as they would were they still in the arm, flexing the muscle they are innervating whenever the person thinks of say, performing a high five or opening a jar.  Electrodes placed on the muscle detect contractions that a motorized prosthetic arm translates into the appropriate movement.  This gives the amputee intuitive control of the arm and the ability to perform fine motor movements that have typically not been possible, such as “[slicing] hot peppers, [opening] a bag of flour, [and putting] on a belt.”

As I mentioned in my post on the Open Prosthetics Project, prosthetic devices have until recently been nowhere near as efficient as a regular biological arm.  They’ve been cumbersome and with only a few degrees of freedom have been unable to perform anywhere near the level of biological arms.  Partly this is due to the primitive technology of the arms themselves (which in many cases are no more than a claw and a hook) but it is also due to the primitive technology controlling them.  As stated in the article, “prosthetic arms have been controlled in a rudimentary way, by transforming residual shoulder movements or muscle signals in to the simplest of movement commands.”This new technique gives amputees the ability to perform activities of daily living that had previously been impossible.

What is even more incredible is the possibility that this technology can give back to amputees not only motion, but sensation.  Currently no prosthetics possess tactile abilities.  They cannot feel texture, heat, pressure and so on.  But while most research into muscle re-innervation has focused on motor nerves, “it appears that sensory nerves, which carry signals from the skin to the brain, are affected as well.  Patients, including Mitchell, have reported that when certain areas of their rewired chest muscles are touched, they feel as if their missing hand is being touched.”

If a prosthetic arm can be developed to detect the sensations we feel through our skin, it appears that the nerve wiring would already be in place to make it work.

Amputee Given Prosthetic Mermaid Fins. March 12, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Bionics.
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I love science.  Nadya Vessey, a double leg amputee from New Zealand, has recently been given a functioning prosthetic mermaid fin.  Let me say that again, a functioning prosthetic mermaid fin.  If you don’t believe me take a look at the photo in the article linked below.  Ms. Vessey, who had her legs amputated as a child, contacted a special effects company called the Weta Worshop and asked if they would make her a mermaid tail.  Several thousand dollars and two and a half years later Ms. Vessey is now the proud owner of what I am guessing is the only working mermaid fin in the world.  The spine and fin of the tail are made from polycarbonate, while wetsuit fabric is used for the skin.   

http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/discoblog/2009/03/12/when-humans-get-animal-prosthetics-amputee-fitted-with-mermaid-fin/

Open Prosthetics Project September 23, 2008

Posted by Matt Brown in Bionics.
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Scientific America has a fantastic article about a man who is revolutionizing the prosthetics design industry.  Jonathan Kuniholm, a marine reservist, lost his right arm in Iraq after his platoon was ambushed by insurgents.  Due to advances in medical technology surgeons were able to save his life but Kuniholm now suffered a fate shared by many soldiers, where wounds that in the past would have killed them now leave them maimed and disfigured.  Upon returning to the United States, Kuniholm was was fitted with two prosthesis.  The first was a standard split-hook device operated by a harness and cable system controlled by the shoulder and arm, and a more advanced myoelectric device which picks up nerve signals produced by muscle contraction to open and close the pincers of the hand. Both of these devices were on the cutting edge of prosthetic design, but Kuniholm wasn’t impressed.  In fact he was shocked by the lack of innovation in the prosthetics market.

In contrast to popular imagination and sci-fi movies, where prosthesis often grant Herculean strength and superhuman abilities, prosthetic devices in the real world are nowhere near as efficient as natural limbs and progress is very slow.  The reasons behind this stagnation are simple economics.  With the cost of prosthetics devices quite high (600 dollars for a basic hook and up to 6000 for a myoelectric hand) and the number of people needing them rather small there is little incentive for companies or individuals to invest the capital needed to improve the design.  So Kuniholm turned to a system that has been used in software design for years, open source.  With a few friends he started an online consortium called the Open Prosthetics Project, whose goal is to encourage innovation, to “Pimp my Arm” as it is known on the site, and then freely give the designs away.  Anyone can contribute to the website and all the designs are free to use.

With such a small market, open source may be the only credible way to bring new ideas and designs into the prosthetics market.  There is certainly no lack of minds willing to tackle this problem so giving them a place to share ideas is our best chance to take prosthetics forward.

http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?id=open-source-thinking

Scientist Develop Bionic Eye. Sort of. August 12, 2008

Posted by Matt Brown in Bionics.
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Truth be told it’s not really a bionic eye, but it’s the first step on the way to making one.  According to an article in Rueters, scientists in the United States have developed a sphere shaped (or eye shaped) camera that they say will help to improve the performance of digital cameras in the short term, but in the long term could be used as the first prosthetic eye.

According to Yonggang Huang of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, who along with John Rogers of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign worked on the device, the hardest part was getting the camera to conform to the curved surface of the sphere.   Bending it was out of the question, since due to the brittleness of the materials used the camera would have broken apart.  To overcome this challenge, they came up with a simple and ingenious solution.  “Huang and Rogers developed a mesh-like material made up of tiny squares that hold the photodetectors and electronic components. The squares are connected by tiny wires that give each component the ability to mold to a curved surface.” 

One of the benefits of building a camera on a curved surface is that greatly improves the field of vision when you are taking a picture.  “Currently when you take photos, the middle part of the picture is very clear but when you go to the edge, it is not so clear,” Huang said. “The curved technology will make the entire picture clear.”  The other obivous benefit to making a spherical camera is that if you are trying to make a bionic eye, it better damn well look like a human eye.

While the technology is promising it still has a few major hurdles to overcome before we can even think of using it as prosthetic, namely how to have the brain process the images taken by the eye/camera.  While we are currently able to rudimently interface prosthetic devices with nerves, allowing us to move a bionic arm for example, interfacing with the brain is a much trickier prospect.   Another stumbling block is how to power the camera, as a battery would need to be recharged at regular intervals and, while a viable option, would be quite a hassel.  Still, Rome wasn’t built in a day as they say, and Huang and Rogers seem excited at that prospect of the challenge.

http://www.reuters.com/article/technologyNews/idUSN0647922920080806?feedType=RSS&feedName=technologyNews&sp=true