Bionic hand redesign to improve dexterity for amputees

A commercial collaboration with St Vincent’s Hospital.

The electrical signals from the stump of an amputated hand have been used for years to control simple prosthetics with some grasping capability, but a new project is attempting to design a mechanical hand with unprecedented levels of functionality.

The current abilities of prosthetics disappoint orthopedic surgeon Professor Peter Choong, from Melbourne’s St Vincent’s Hospital. He has assembled a team to re-imagine possibilities for a prosthetic hand and take a giant leap towards more dexterous bionic technology.

The project is working on every facet of the problem of connecting a human to a machine – from the electrodes to access electrical signals in the stump to the design of a machine capable of subtle tactile movement and feedback to control grasp strength.

Central to the project is Associate Professor Denny Oetomo, a robotics researcher from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Melbourne.

He says the design problem is complex, with several interrelated challenges. This includes re-envisioning how the stump, electrodes and prosthetic fit together to maximise signal relay, through to designing a hand mechanism that incorporates tactile sensors to allow the hand autonomous control when handling objects.

Then there’s the question of whether the prosthetic needs to look like a human hand, Associate Professor Oetomo says. This may be a very different to the current approaches, but should be considered, given that the optimal design for a prosthetic may not look like a human hand.

Advances are expected to be made in incremental steps and involve the participation of amputees directly.

Associate Professor Oetomo is inviting engagement with patients’ creativity and willingness to push the boundaries on what is possible. The design should not limit the technology and the possible skill development in the human–prosthetic interface.

We want a solution that behaves like a limb, not a tool, he says. We have a design in mind and the prospects are very exciting.

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