Nigel Ackland lost half his arm in an accident six years ago. But now he’s got a carbon-fiber prosthetic arm that is strong enough to grip a beer yet gentle enough to clutch an egg.
The prosthesis is called the BeBionic3 myoelectric hand and is made by a British company named RSLSteeper. It’s made from a carbon-fiber body, making it light yet strong, and has aluminum and alloy knuckles. The hand can do much more than the typical prosthesis.
“A standard prosthetic hand has one pinch, where the thumb and fingers come down together,” said Richard Shapcott, general manager of SteeperUSA, the US branch of RSLSteeper. This can produce a strong grip that can’t handle more delicate tasks.
The BeBionic3 hand, in contrast, has different motors for each finger, allowing them to articulate separately to get a combination of strength and grip. Inside the prosthesis is a small amp that picks up the minute myoelectric signal produced by human muscles. The signal is then amplified and tells the hand whether to open or close. When Ackland tenses the outer muscle on his arm, the hand will open. If he tenses the other, it will close. Tensing both muscles together switches between controlling the hand and spinning the wrist. Because the strength of the user firing their muscles determines the strength of the grip, someone outfitted with the device can gently clutch a egg, grasp a tool, or shake a hand.
The BeBionic3 comes with eight different grips programmed into it, which can be augmented with software that comes with the product. In the video above, you can see Ackland demonstrating some of the grips, which include extending his pointer finger, gripping something with all fingers, and making a come-hither motion. “This is the one that scares children and upsets my wife,” said Ackland in the video.
The thumb can be moved into opposition for additional grip types. Ackland switches between the different modes by firing his muscle twice in close succession. The arm has a small learning curve but Ackland has been wearing it for several months and appears well versed in its abilities in the video above.
Shapcott says that between 30 and 50 people have been outfitted with the device since September. Though it would retail for a large price, which he did not disclose, he said that the hand is covered by most insurance and Medicare in the U.S. and the national healthcare in the U.K.
Users can customize the device to a certain extent, adding new modes or changing the order in which they appear. RSLSteeper also makes a silicon cosmetic skin that mimics human flesh to cover the arm but it looks like Ackland is happy to leave it exposed as a futuristic Terminator device.
Future versions will likely have more modes and more capabilities, said Shapcott. But the human hand is still far more complex.
“Just bringing your pinky to your thumb is nearly impossible to do with motors,” he said. “Unless you’re doing something animatronic, but then that couldn’t stand up to the rigors of daily life.”
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