From precision mechanical arms built for the delicate skill of playing the piano to hands inspired by Marvel superhero Iron Man, prosthetics are no longer the dumb, rubber models of old.
We’ve rounded up the most amazing tech prosthetics that give wearers lifelike grip, balance and movement by connecting to an amputee’s muscles, or in the case of the Bebionic, directly to a person’s brain.
Plus, it’s not just limbs. Researchers in India and the US have designed prosthetics to replace the voice boxes of throat cancer patients and the eyes of people suffering vision loss.
It’s been likened to Luke Skywalker’s hand in Star Wars and has even drawn similarities to the technology seen in The Terminator yet the Bebionic is actually the world’s most lifelike prosthetic hand. Known as a myoeletric prosthesis, the Bebionic hand connects directly to the wearer’s brain and is powered by electrical signals generated naturally by their own muscles. It offers 14 different grip patterns and hand positions “designed to handle almost anything that you need to do in an average day.” It’s so dextrous, it can even tie shoelaces and automatically changes the level of grip in case something needs a more delicate touch or it feels the object slipping. Manufacturers RSL Steeper additionally sells a silicone glove that looks just like a real hand.
With a staggering 10 powered joints and six pre-programmed grips, the LUKE (Life Under Kinetic Evolution) arm similarly takes inspiration from Skywalker’s arm in Star Wars. Made by Mobius Bionics, the LUKE is the only commercially available prosthetic to have a powered shoulder, making it possible for amputees who have lost their entire arm to be able to lift their arm(s) above their head. The grips range from the Power grip – designed to hold larger, heavier objects – to the Fine pinch grip, capable of gripping items as small as peas and zippers. There is even a Tool grip designed to hold and control DIY tools.
Open Bionics’ Hero Arm
For children with prosthetics, school can be a difficult time and that’s where the Hero Arm comes in. The Hero Arm from Bristol-based Open Bionic is a powered bionic hand controlled by the wearer’s muscles. As the world’s first medically certified, 3D-printed robotic prosthetic, everything from the hand, to the socket and frame are tailor-made for the user, including the types of grip. Plus wearers can personalise the design, choosing covers from a range of Star Wars, Marvel, Disney and more. Available in three sizes, the smallest hand weighs just 280g (0.62lbs), whereas the full arm weighs less than 1kg (2.2lbs) making it the lightest commercially available bionic hand.
Modular prosthetic limb
Capable of making almost any movement seen in human arms and hands, the Modular Prosthetic Limb developed at John Hopkins University is the “world’s most sophisticated upper-extremity prosthesis”. It is a bionic arm fitted with more than 100 sensors designed to give it human-like strength, dexterity and range of motion, specifically built to restore full functionality to amputee soldiers. In 2016, it became the first prosthetic of its kind to be surgically attached to an amputee’s residual limb, as opposed to being attached via a sling which can cause pain and blisters for the wearer. The US government has funded the production of six MPLs that are currently being used for neurorehabilitation research across the States, with a further four more in development.
Capable of solving a Rubik’s Cube, thanks to its incredible dexterity, and picking flowers using its force sensors, the Shadow Hand from the Shadow Robot Company is one of the most advanced robotic hands in the world. With 20 actuated degrees of freedom and four under-actuated movements, giving the bionic hand a total of 24 joints, the prosthetic has a movement range almost identical to a human hand. It can even make the subtle flexing movements seen in a human palm when moving the little finger thanks to its mechanical tendons in the wrist.
Beyond everyday movements, there's a number of prosthetics designed to carry out very specific tasks. Using spare parts from a typewriter and nanometer, French artist JL Gonzal recently built an arm capable of helping tattoo artist Lyon-based JC Sheitan continue his career after he lost his lower limb in an accident. The custom-built prosthetic is fitted with a needle, gauges and tubes to allow compressed air to move through the arm.
Ossur Cheetah Knee
Ossur’s Cheetah brand is more well known for its Blade, worn by Jonnie Peacock and Oscar Pistorius yet its Cheetah Knee is an amazing feat of engineering that uses a three-phase hydraulic swing designed specifically for rapid flexion and extension when running and sprinting. It’s not built for walking and is predominantly a sports prosthetic but can be used for interval training.
A musician who lost his arm after he was electrocuted in 2012 can play the piano again thanks to a bionic hand-built arm from Georgia Institute of Technology. In 2017, researchers built an ultrasonic sensor that allows Jason Barnes, and other amputees, to control individual prosthetic fingers using electromyogram (EMG) sensors attached to his muscles. The system is powered by an algorithm that uses machine learning to determine how much pressure and movement is needed. Barnes launched a Kickstarter last year to fund a robotic arm for drumming but failed to hit its target.
Aum Voice Prosthesis
While prosthetics are typically used to replace limbs, an Indian research team has developed a prosthetic voice box to help restore the voices of throat cancer patients. Called the Aum Voice Prosthesis, not only does it help people who have undergone a laryngectomy to speak again, it costs just $1, or 80p. Similar European prosthesis cost in the region of $/£350 each. The Aum device weighs just 25g, is no bigger than a centimetre and is inserted into the throat of patients who have had their voice box removed.
Argus II Prosthesis
For patients suffering from Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP) – a group of diseases which causes vision loss – Second Sight has developed a bionic eye called the Argus II Prosthetic. The prosthetic works with a camera fitted to a pair of glasses worn by the patient. This camera captures images and converts them into a series of small electrical pulses. The pulses are sent wirelessly to the prosthesis and an array of 60 electrodes, each 200 microns in diameter, on the surface of the retina recreates a version of this image.
BiOM emPOWER Ankle
For patients who don’t need an entire lower limb or full-leg prosthetic, BiOM has created the emPOWER Ankle, a prosthetic designed to replace an amputee’s ankle and foot. It mimics a human ankle’s resistance and flexion in real-time to give the wearer stability and balance regardless of what surface they’re walking on, while reducing pressure on their other joints. This, in turn, normalises their gait and reduces the potential for osteoarthritis. BiOM studies have also shown wearers walk 23% faster when wearing the emPOWER Ankle compared to regular foot prosthetics.
Linx leg system
The Linx leg system is so advanced it recently won the Royal Academy of Engineering's MacRobert Award – an annual prize for innovation in engineering. Fitted with four CPUs and seven sensors, messages are sent from the ankle to the knee and adjustments are made more than 2,000 times a day to make the limb feel as natural as possible. The different sections work together to predict how the wearer is going to move and automatically react to their position. Its settings can then be tweaked by a Bluetooth connection between the leg and a phone.