MIT's Inflatable Robotic Hand Is A Next-Generation Prosthetic

MIT has created a soft, inflatable robotic hand that it hopes will give amputees back the tactile control that's lost with a traditional prosthetic device. Engineers on the project aim to help more than 5 million people worldwide who have undergone amputation. Many prosthetic devices in use worldwide are nothing more than metal hooks or fake plastic hands that don't move.

MIT hopes to bolster the growing number of articulated robotic prosthetic devices that utilize residual muscle signals of a portion of the limb remaining for amputees. Those residual muscle signals allow these high-tech prosthetic devices to mimic the user's intended motions. However, one major downside of commercial neuroprosthetics is that they are extremely expensive, with some costing tens of thousands of dollars.

Typical devices are also built around rigid metal skeletons and require electric motors that make them heavy. MIT engineers have worked with Shanghai Jiao Tong University partners to design a soft, white, and potentially affordable neural prosthetic hand. In testing, amputees could use MIT's creation to perform everyday tasks like zipping a suitcase, pouring a drink, and petting a cat.

Researchers say their soft creation works just as well and sometimes better than rigid and more expensive neuroprosthetic devices. The new prosthetic device was built utilizing a system that offers tactile feedback, allowing the prosthetic limb to offer basic sensation to the user's residual limb. Anyone who's ever petted a cat knows that they go from purring and enjoying their pets to biting you in seconds.

A cat's sharp teeth might be a concern with the soft, inflatable, and elastic hand, but designers say it's surprisingly durable and can withstand being run over or struck with a hammer. MIT's design weighs about half a pound and costs around $500 for the required components. While the device has yet to be commercialized, researchers say it's performance is already similar or superior to existing neuroprosthetic devices.