A British woman, Nicky Ashwell, has recently been fitted with what scientists claim to be the most life-like bionic hand to date.
Following the procedure, performed at the private London Prosthetics Centre, the 29 year old Ashwell, who was born without a right hand, is now able to carry out tasks she was never able to before, such as ride a bike or use cutlery – simple, everyday actions most people never even stop to think about.
The prosthetic limb, which weighs about the same as a bar of chocolate (around 390 g) and is made from aerograde aluminium and rare Earth magnets, was developed by a company called Steeper that had built it around an accurate skeletal structure with small proportions designed to fit teenagers and women.
Steeper claims its prosthetic hand, which uses military and Formula 1 technology, is a veritable breakthrough in replacement bionic limbs, delivering “unrivalled level of precision and natural movements”, made possible by as many as 14 different precision grips.
That’s thanks to the 337 discrete mechanical parts that allow the prosthetic to function in a natural and realistic way.
“We leaned on a number of different industries to make the BeBionic hand. The knuckle mechanisms were created using a cutting technique used on F1 car chassis. And some of the tiny motors that drive the fingers and thumb are used on missiles,” said Ted Varley, the company’s Technical Director.
Excited about her new hand, Ashwell, who’s a Product Manager at an online fashion forecasting and trend service, said:
“When I first tried the BeBionic small hand it was an exciting and strange feeling – it immediately opened up so many more possibilities for me. I realized that I had been making life challenging for myself when I didn’t need to.
The movements now come easily and look natural – I keep finding myself being surprised by the little things, like being able to carry my purse while holding my boyfriend’s hand. I’ve also been able to do things never before possible like riding a bike and lifting weights.”
The hand can withstand up to 45 kg in weight and is precise enough to hold a wine glass without breaking it.
“The stem of a wine glass is an example of something bionic hands could not hold before. Now the skeletal structure means that the hand wraps around that and things like soft fruit,“ said Varley.
To develop the line of “robo-hands” that the BeBionic belongs to, Steeper – a well-known British prosthetic limb manufacturer that‘s been in business since the First World War – spent 7 years in research, development and manufacturing. This latest model took around 1 million pounds, 18 months and 25 designers to make.
In terms of the production process, in order to maintain anatomical accuracy, the first element to be developed was the skeletal structure, which was then equipped with the intricate electronics. “In other myoelectric hands the technology is developed first, at the expense of the life-likeness.”
The BeBionic uses sensors triggered by Ashwell’s muscle movements to activate motion. Movements are then coordinated by powerful microprocessors and individual motors in each finger.
Rather unsurprisingly, precision-made, multi-joint robotic limbs like this are very expensive and may cost up to 10.000 pounds for a hand or an almost astronomically-steep 100.000 pounds for a full arm.