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   Inside Out - South West: Monday February 7, 2005

HAND OF THE FUTURE

artificial limb
Artificial intelligence meets artificial limbs

New technology could soon transform the lives of people with artificial arms.

By harnessing the power of the microchip, scientists in Plymouth are hoping to build smarter prosthetic limbs.

Current designs for artificial hands only offer a very limited range of movement.

By using microchips in prosthetics, researchers are looking to vastly increase the repertoire of movement and control these hands can offer.

Signalling change

Many people who lose their arms still have some movement in the surrounding muscles. They can flex these muscles as if they were trying to move their arms.

Current prosthetic designs read this flexing, and translate them into basic hand movements (like opening and closing the hand).

The drawbacks of the current designs are that they offer very basic hand movements. They are also heavy to wear and it takes a long time to train people on how to move their hand.

The Plymouth scientists are trying to address all those issues by using microchips to operate the hands.

Sensing movement

Professor Roland Burns
Professor Roland Burns sees the future in his hands

Professor Roland Burns and his team from Advanced Control Research Ltd in Plymouth, have developed a new microchip which can read more of a user's muscle flexings and translate those flexings into a much freer movement.

The sensor works by picking up the tiny electrical signals sent out by the brain to the muscles to trigger movement.

The sensor inside the prosthesis can read up to four different signals at any one time.

This enables users to not only open or close their hand but also to rotate their wrist on either sides.

As the development continues, the possibilities of using this technique seem boundless;

"At the moment we are talking about surface sensors, but who knows what the future holds in terms of embedded systems, ones that can communicate with nerve endings and transmit information.

"I think we’ve a long way to go, but it’s the start of a very exciting process."
Professor Burns.

Pattern recognition

computer monitor displaying a circuit board
Micro-components pack a punch into the hands

The scientists are also using artificial intelligence to control their replacement limbs.

They are using a technique known as "pattern recognition" to discern a wider range of movements.

Pattern recognition allows the limb to be quickly tailored to the individual user.

Rather than having to spend days or weeks training a person to use one of the old-style prosthetics, the computer control system can be configured in a matter of minutes.

Cash crisis

It has taken Professor Burns five years to get the hand ready for full clinical and regulatory trials. His company is now readying the first batch of 20 hands to be used in the trials.

But he is looking for funding to keep the project going.

He is turning to industry investors rather than funding agencies as he tries to transform his research and development company into "a company that is selling a product in the marketplace".

The company is looking for £175,000 to allow it to produce the limbs commercially after the trial is concluded.

Professor Burns says that if the money cannot be raised the project will have to closed down in the next three months.

Initial trials

Charlotte Charteris
"I didn't believe it would be that easy, but it is."
Charlotte Charteris

Preliminary trials on patients at Plymouth and Derriford Hospital have shown that the technology is effective and easy to use.

Charlotte Charteris has tried out the new limbs.

When she was 16 she nearly died from meningitis.

She had to have both hands and her right leg amputated as a result of the illness.

Now aged 19, Charlotte is eager to be one of the first to try out the new system.

After less than 20 minutes with the new hand Charlotte is already controlling four different hand movements.

That's a big improvement - with her old artificial hand it took weeks to perfect just simple opening and closing.

Using the new hand is the first time she has been able to perform wrist movements since she had her hands amputated. She says;

"Realistically I haven't moved my wrists since I had my own hands."

The future

Man using artificial arm to tie shoelaces
Tying the knot - new technology wedded to prosthetics

The technology has certainly shown a great deal of potential from preliminary trials.

For Professor Burns the future of his new limb is dependant on finding someone to give him the financial support he needs to start manufacturing and selling his new hand.

If he manages to raise the money the new controller should be available to thousands of amputees within a year.

See also ...

On bbc.co.uk
Microchip promises smart artificial arms (News)

On the rest of the web
Advanced Control Research Ltd (NESTA awards profile)
Plymouth Hospitals NHS Trust
Disability Now
UK Disability Forum

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

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Readers' Comments

We are not adding any new comments to this page but you can still read some of the comments previously submitted by readers.

neil mcmurray
I missed your programme last night but have been inspired by what i have read on your website. I lost my dominant right hand 14 years ago and am appaled by what i've been offered by the NHS up to now. If you are looking for any further volunteers for this project i would be happy to volunteer. And if not, keep up the good work it's inspirational.

Paul W Crawford
I think it would be sacrilegious if this project had to be closed down because of the lack of mere money. I would be interested to know what other such technology is around. Is Prof Burns'exciting product unique? I would be interested to know if the £175,000 is to be considered as a donation or an investment into production. I can imagine that this amount would not go very far in the latter case.

Andre de Guerin
Fascinating stuff :) This just shows how one good idea with sufficient investment can result in a product that can help a large number of people. I wish Prof. Burns and his team well in their efforts to get their product to market.



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