A new remote-controlled prosthetic hand could be a life-changer

Scientists at EPFL have been working on a new robotic hand that could be a life-changing device for amputees. The new robotic hand combines tech from two different fields – neuroengineering and robotics. The team created a new robotic hand that was tested on three amputees and seven healthy subjects.

One of the concepts used in the robotic hand taken from neuroengineering involves determining intended finger movement from the muscular activity on the amputee's stump for individual finger control of the prosthetic hand. That had never been done before, according to the researchers. From the field of robotics, the team took tech that allows a robotic hand to help take hold of objects and maintain contact with them for grasping duties.

One challenge for grasping things is in keeping them from dropping. The scientists say when a human is holding something, and it starts to slip, they only have a few milliseconds to react. The robotic hand the team developed can react in 400 milliseconds thanks to pressure sensors along the fingers.

The team also uses an algorithm that learns how to decode user intent and translates that intent into finger movement for the prosthetic hand. Training the robotic hand requires the amputee to perform a series of hand movements. Sensors on the stump record the muscle movement; once the movement is understood, the information can be used for controlling the robotic hand.

The team then engineered the algorithm to start robotic automation when the user tries to grasp an object. Some of the tech for the automatic grasping action comes from a previous study on robotic arms. The team says that "many" challenges remain for the algorithm before it can be implemented into a commercial prosthetic hand.