Inflatable Robotic Hand May Give a “Sense of Touch” Back to Amputees

Engineers at MIT and Shanghai Jiao Tong University have designed a low-cost neuroprosthetic hand that is soft and lightweight. Amputees tested the artificial limb by performing daily activities such as pouring juice in a glass, petting a cat, and zipping a suitcase and concluded that it worked better than those rigid neuroprosthetics and at the same time it was surprisingly quite durable. Another advantage of the potential new systems is that the total cost of the components used amount to a total of $500, which is half the price of neuroprosthetics available in the market right now. The arm is made with a soft, stretchy material called ‘EcoFlex’ and comprises five balloon-like fingers, embedded with fiber segments which are then connected to a 3D printed hand. It uses a pneumatic system to accurately inflate the fingers and bend them in specific positions rather than controlling the whole finger together. The researchers also added a tactile feedback system which makes it different from the commercial neuroprosthetics. They did this by stiching a pressure sensor to each fingertip which is wired to a specific location on the amputee’s residual limb so whenever it is pressed, it produces an electrical signal which the user can ‘feel’, giving them the sensation of touch. While the smart arm is not available for commercial use yet, the team are hopeful that this low-cost prosthetic arm would have a huge potential for low-income families who have suffered from amputation.