Robotic Prosthetics: 6 Steps Toward the Future of Artificial Limbs

The science of prosthetic limbs has come a long way since pirates used wooden pegs and hooks to replace lost limbs. Today, advances in robotics are offering even more control and dexterity to those in need of replacement limbs.

Let’s take a closer look at the future of robotic prosthetics and what the recipients of these limbs can hope for in the coming years.

1. Mind-Controlled Robotic Arm

Johnny Matheny of New Port Richie, Florida lost his arm to cancer in 2005. In 2018, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab outfitted him with a new prosthetic arm to test — one that was controlled by neural impulses created by his brain.

This arm is the first of its kind. It cost more than $120 million and took 10 years to develop. If Matheny’s test year is successful, it could set groundbreaking trends and help prosthetic technology become more affordable.

The arm has its limits — for example, Matheny isn’t allowed to get it wet or drive with it — but the neural controls mean that the arm moves more like the one he lost and feels more natural than previously available prosthetics.

2. 3D Printed Myoelectric Arm

Myoelectric is a medical term that describes the electric properties of muscles. In the world of prosthetics, it refers to a limb that has a separate internal power source that the wearer controls with the electrical signals generated by their muscles.

Open Bionics has created Hero Arm — a 3D printed Myoelectric prosthetic that is designed for below-elbow amputees. Each arm is custom-printed to fit the wearer perfectly and can be customized with nearly any color pattern.

Even with the myoelectric components, a full arm prosthesis only weighs 2.2 pounds and offers haptic feedback, as well as light and sound to transmit the status of the bionic arm to the wearer.

3. LUKE – Life Under Kinetic Evolution

One of the biggest challenges in creating robotic prosthetics is the fact that these replacement limbs don’t transmit sensations related to the human sense of touch, such as temperature changes.

The LUKE arm — named for fictional character Luke Skywalker, who lost his hand in the famous Star Wars epic — can be equipped with a tactor or vibratory motor that provides tactile feedback to the user.

It’s also one of the only robotic prosthetics that can allow a shoulder amputee to raise their prosthetic arm over their head. The sensory feedback allows the arm to mimic biology more closely than any other robotic prosthetic to date.

4. The RoboArm

Robotic prosthetics are changing lives, but a single robotic prosthetic arm can cost more than $100,000, putting them out of reach for many individuals.

For those with a 3D printer, The RoboArm can give them the ability to make a robotic arm at home for a fraction of the cost. For those without printers at home, these 3D-printed prosthetics sell for about $4,000.

While not as advanced as some of the other robotic arms on this list, the RoboArm still sets a precedent — it gives patients the ability to craft their own prosthetic.

The plans for the Version 1 RoboArm are open source and available for free on the internet, so just about anyone can print their own robotic prosthetic.

5. Neural Controls

Twenty-year-old Morgan Stickney lost her foot after an accident that failed to heal properly. Rather than opting for a traditional prosthetic, the former swimmer and track star opted for experimental amputation surgery. Her new prosthetic, if successful, will allow her to control her new foot just like she did the old one — with nerve signals coming from the brain.

Morgan is one of nine amputees currently involved in a study looking at these new experimental prosthetics.

6. Smart Prosthetics

One thing an amputee loses when a limb is removed is the muscle memory that they’ve acquired over time in that limb. Prosthetics don’t learn the way muscles do, making recovering lost skills more difficult.

A new project — the brainchild of the North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill — is hoping to change that, using the wearers’ recorded brainwaves to predict how they’re going to move.

This ‘middleman’ could make it easier for patients to use their prosthetics once the smart system has time to learn their individual brainwave patterns.

The Future of Robotic Prosthetics

Prosthetics technology has changed a lot in the last couple hundred years, and it will only continue to improve as new technologies become available.

Robotics is currently the leading edge in prosthetic technology and will only continue to make amputee’s lives easier and more comfortable as the technology evolves.

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