Bionic devices restore or augment the capabilities of human beings. In recent years we have seen many of these devices enter the market, including advanced prosthetic limbs, orthotic devices, wearables and assistive products like exoskeletons. To better understand the landscape of bionic products, we have made a short list of the most interesting recent developments in the market.
1. Open Bionics – Deus Ex Arm
In November 2018, Mark Hamill teamed up with British company Open Bionics as part of a long-term strategy to replace disability with superpowers. Open Bionics uses fantastical designs and inexpensive 3D printing techniques to create fun, affordable myoelectric arms. The key to their success has been their ability to form alliances with big media players and iconic stars, such as Disney and the video game publisher Eidos Interactive. who allow Open Bionics to render their images into prosthetic designs. Rather than blending into the background, these designs stand out and celebrate difference. Moreover, the focus on style and affordability means that even young children (who typically grow too quickly to justify expensive prostheses) can have their own customized device to show off to their friends. Open Bionics is part of a growing number of providers looking at simple solutions that offer large improvements in quality of life, which will soon include exciting possibilities such as the incorporation of gadgets, like USB sticks or phone chargers, into low-cost prosthetics.
2. Nuada – Smart Glove
In 2017, Portuguese company Nuada launched their Smart Glove, a device that supports hand movement. This device consists of pressure sensors and “artificial tendon” actuators in the form of a soft glove. Using a feedback loop that involves an on-board computer, the sensors detect the intention of the user (e.g., if the person wants to grip something) and the actuators make this movement swift and effective. Not only does this make the movement faster, more accurate and stronger, but the glove also has a structure that supports weight and alleviates pressure – for example, a tea pot handle pulling downwards on a user’s clenched fingers. This solution can this help individuals who lack proper hand function due to ageing, accidents, demanding activities and diseases.
3. Medtronic – 670G System (The Portable Pancreas)
In 2017, Medtronic launched a new and innovative product for monitoring blood-glucose and delivering insulin to people with diabetes. This followed lengthy patient testing and approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in 2016. The device inserts a wire under the skin of the abdomen that measures glucose in the tissue fluid. These readings are calibrated by a glucose meter and sent wirelessly to an insulin pump, which delivers the required amount of long-acting or basal insulin. This is a closed-loop system that does not require any input from the user, although it’s possible to choose “Manual Mode”, in which the user can program the quantities of insulin to be delivered throughout the day. However, even in Manual Mode the delivery will be stopped if dangerously low blood-glucose is detected. This solution represents the beginning of a new generation of diabetic care that reduces the burden on patients and lowers the probability of sub-optimal management (i.e., the amount of time spent outside of the ideal blood-glucose range). Further such products are expected in the coming years that include all types of insulin (rapid-, short-, intermediate- and long-acting) and provide a true replacement for self-management, with the automated system acting like an artificial pancreas.
4. Ekso Bionics – EksoGT Exoskeleton
Ekso Bionics has led the way in exoskeleton technologies over the past decade. Now, with the EksoGT, the company has established itself as a world leader in rehabilitation for those who have suffered injury or disease. This device is used in over 225 rehab centres and is currently being tested by more than 2,000 patients in 80 investigator-led clinical studies. The exoskeleton is designed to help patients relearn how to stand and walk and is typically used with those who have suffered spinal cord injury or stroke. In addition to supporting the patient’s weight and keeping them stable, the rig is decorated with sensors that continuously monitor and regulate leg movement through the use of on-board software to minimize compensatory gait patterns. This ensures that rehabilitation is done properly the first time, preventing the relearning process from picking up bad habits. Importantly, the device has safeguards that only allow the patient to bear their own weight when they achieve proper postural alignment. Two modes of movement are available, full-assist and patient-initiated, to allow for progression towards self-sufficiency. And finally, the device tracks metrics that are useful for medical experts for purposes of evaluation, such as walking time, distance traveled, and speed.
5. DEKA Research and Development – LUKE Arm
The long-awaited LUKE Arm hit the market in 2017, sold by several vendors including Mobius Bionics. This artificial upper limb represents the cutting-edge of advanced prosthetics. The device is offered in different sizes (e.g., to the wrist, to the elbow, and to the shoulder) and includes up to ten powered joints, with three electrical actuators controlling the thumb, index finger and remaining three digits. This provides a high degree of freedom when the user manipulates the device, allowing them to perform usual daily tasks, such as reaching above their head to grab something from a cupboard. The LUKE Arm also provides a range of grips to suit different situations and optional vibrotactile feedback that can detect pressure from the thumb or from changing between different grips. Control of the device is open to most common strategies currently used by the industry, such as electromyography (EMG), and includes a special twist: the ability to control the hand based on movements of the user’s foot! This uses sensors attached to the user’s shoe to detect foot tilt – when the user wishes to do so, they can turn on this control mechanism and use foot movements to control the device.
These are just five of the exciting bionic devices currently serving patients around the world. With building incentives for exoskeletons from the manufacturing industry (e.g., Lockheed Martin, Toyota), new artificial skins from robotics companies (e.g., Honda’s ASIMO robot, Kindred AI) and a growing interest in translating research in the prosthetics and orthotics industries (e.g., UBC’s new collaborations with Barber Prosthetics), we are set to see many more devices hit the market in the coming years.