As part of our mission to help those with limb differences learn about bionic limb technology, we periodically report on the latest research news. Below are the most interesting stories that we uncovered over the past few months.
Are True Lower-Limb Bionic Startups Finally Emerging?
For those who follow us, you know that we often lament the stagnant state of commercial lower-limb bionics. Almost all of the bionic knees and ankles currently on the market are controlled by a handful of companies, and those same companies have snapped up most of the major innovations emerging from academic research over the past decade (Empower Ankle, Rheo Knee, Odyssey Ruggedized Ankle).
The result? Competition remains low, prices stay high, and innovations come to market like molasses. This is especially frustrating for lower-limb amputees when they see the innovation and falling prices in upper-limb bionics.
However, this may finally be starting to change. Back in late May 2021, we scanned the world looking for new lower-limb bionic devices and came up with five. But given Ossur’s acquisition of the Oddysey ankle, there were only two startups that interested us: BionicM and Axiles Bionics.
To refresh your memory, here’s a quick look at BionicM’s Powered Prosthetic Leg competing in the 2020 Cybathlon competition:
And here is a glimpse of Axile Bionics’ AMP-Foot-5:
Note, BionicM has both a powered knee and a powered ankle/foot, whereas Axile Bionics focuses just on its ankle/foot. All three devices are still in the prototype stage.
We have now become aware of a new company that has entered the lower-limb bionic market: Reboocon Bionics. In fact, this company has a powered bionic knee, a powered ankle, and a lower-body exoskeleton. Here is a quick look at the knee, which is called the IntelLeg Knee, or ILK for short:
Why are we so excited about this? Because it will only take one capable bionic knee or ankle/foot device selling for a much lower price to break this market wide open and begin the same wonderful rush toward accessibility and affordability that we’re seeing with bionic hands.
To this end, we’re going to press forward now with full articles on each of these devices including their expected release dates, geographical availability, and price.
Speaking of Bionic Hand Innovation…
One of the drawbacks of being an all-volunteer organization is that we are sometimes forced to do other things to pay the bills. This leads to an occasional lapse in our research & writing activities.
And boy did we miss a lot in our most recent lapse! As one small example, here is a soft inflatable robotic hand that gives amputees real-time tactile control:
What is the big deal? you ask, as the hand appears to mostly do what other bionic hands already do.
The big deal is how the hand is constructed. Built by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Shanghai Jiao Tong University, the palm is entirely 3D-printed. The fingers are balloon-like, each embedded with fiber segments similar to the articulated bones in natural fingers. To move the fingers, a simple pneumatic system precisely inflates them to bend them into specific positions.
This eliminates the need for mounted electrical motors for each finger, significantly reducing costs. Indeed, the total cost of components that make up the entire hand is around $500, and that includes sensory feedback from pressure sensors in the fingertips! Additionally, because the hand has fewer moving parts and is made from a soft, stretchy material known as EcoFlex, it has the potential to solve the durability problem that plagues so many commercial bionic hands.
How is the hand controlled? It basically uses the same type of myoelectric control system used by most current bionic hands.
How does the hand perform? In one test, two volunteers were given 15 minutes of training. They were then asked to perform several standardized tests to demonstrate manual strength and dexterity. When they repeated these same tests using a more rigid, commercially available bionic hand, they found that the inflatable hand was as good or even better at most tasks compared to its rigid counterpart.
The use of inflation is novel here but the use of soft robotics is not. As described in our article Introducing Soft Bionic Hands, this is a very promising area of research, especially for cost and durability.
This is not the only bionic hand innovation that we uncovered in our most recent search. Check out this intriguing use of artificial muscles by Automaton Robotics:
It’s not that these technologies will all make it to market. That’s not the point. The point is that we could have posted another 10 videos in this article about novel technologies/approaches that have just surfaced in the past few months.
This explosion in bionic hand innovation appears to be accelerating. Here, as one more example, is a bionic hand prototype recently designed and built by a 17-year-old student on a budget of only 200 British pounds:
This is happening all over the world, in research labs, small companies, garages, basements. And it is only going to lead to one place: affordable, accessible bionic hands for everyone who needs them.
We believe that once this same kind of pioneering, startup mindset occurs in lower-limb bionics, we’ll eventually see the same outcome there!
Are you interested in bionic limb research? If so, see our complete selection of research articles.
For a comprehensive description of all current upper-limb technologies, devices, and research, see A Complete Guide to Bionic Arms & Hands.
For a comprehensive description of all current lower-limb technologies, devices, and research, see A Complete Guide to Bionic Legs & Feet.