Losing a limb is devastating. The most common way to address the loss is a prosthetic, which attempts to at least give the wearer some of the dexterity back they’ve lost. Early on, these fake limbs could not do much, but as technology has evolved, so have prosthetics.
These days, we’re amazed at what people are coming up with. We’ve seen prosthetics with built-in drones, ones that will make you feel (and look) like a superhero, and even one that allowed an artist to tattoo with it.
You might become a bit jealous, but there are a few on our list that are just as useful for those of us blessed to have all our arms and legs. Check out some of the favorites that we’ve covered over the years on Digital Trends.
London’s Royal College of Art graduate student Dani Clode created this 3D-printed prosthesis which is controlled by retrofitted pressure sensors in the wearer’s shoes. The pressure sensors are designed to give plenty of control over the thumb, with one sensor controlling the flexion and extension, and the other controlling the thumb’s adduction and abduction. While only a prototype, Clode describes the Third Thumb as “part tool, part experience, and part self-expression; a model by which we better understand human response to artificial extensions.”
Nonprofit Limbitless Solutions is partnering with 343 Industries to offer Halo-themed prosthetic arms for children that can grip objects just like human arms. The designs are based on the Spartan armor from the popular game series, and kids can choose from the Master Chief’s Mk. VI armor variant and a multiplayer variant with several color options. As of the end of 2018, Limbitless shipped 20 of these arms to lucky kids.
Need an extra hand, or two, or three? YouBionic’s Double Hand prosthesis offers you a maximum of four hands per person for … well, whatever you want to do with them, really. The 3D-printed hands are powered by Arduino and come mounted on a sort of gauntlet worn by the operator. By moving individual fingers at different speeds, the user controls each robotic hand separately, making its fingers curl up into a fist or stretch out. Flex sensors mounted on the gauntlet identify movements and translate them into actions.
Tattoo aficionados will appreciate French artist JC Sheitan Tenet’s prosthetic arm. Developed with the assistance of fellow French artist JL Gonzal, the arm is made of pieces from a typewriter, manometer, a traditional tattoo gun, and various pipes, along with the necessary sensors to detect movement. With the prosthetic, Tenet has full movement to tattoo his intricate designs. He still needs to move his shoulder and upper arm to utilize the tattoo gun, but the two hope to incorporate wrist and finger-like movements in future designs.
Dean Kamen is better known for his work on the Segway, but he remains a prolific inventor that has worked in many areas outside transportation. One of his latest creations is a prosthetic arm called LUKE (Life Under Kinetic Evolution), which allows wearers to manipulate the arm in natural movements, so they can pick up a can, grab some groceries, or carry out other basic tasks. You control it by contracting muscles near where the prosthetic is attached, or in a pressure sensor installed inside a specially designed shoe.
James Young is an avid gamer who lost his arm in a grisly railway accident — which severely limited his gaming. When game developer Konami heard of Young’s plight, its engineers helped develop a prosthetic arm that also includes a detachable drone. Young controls it through sensors installed on the part of the arm that touches his skin, and besides the drone, the prosthetic includes a built-in flashlight, laser light, digital watch, and even a USB port for charging his smartphone.
The loss of a limb is even more traumatic for a child. That said, U.K. limb maker Open Bionics is trying a different strategy to make them feel better: creating limbs that look like they came from superheroes. There’s one modeled after Iron Man’s arm, one that looks like Elsa’s glove from Frozen, and even a lightsaber prosthetic that takes a cue from Star Wars. Disney has also thrown its support behind the project, offering Open Bionics royalty-free license to use the company’s characters as inspiration.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has done a lot of research on prosthetics, and some of the company’s most recent work has focused on making the wearables feel more natural — literally. Researchers were able to mimic the sense of touch in a paralyzed man by placing a series of electrode arrays onto both the sensory cortex and the motor cortex. While it wasn’t perfect, the 28-year-old participant said it almost felt like somebody was touching his hand when a researcher placed his hand on the prosthetic, and he even could tell which finger was being touched just through the sensations.
Indian surgical oncologist Vishal Rao developed a prosthetic voice box that helps those that must have throat surgery regain the ability to speak. Unlike current voice boxes that cost an upward of $1,000, Rao’s costs a mere $1. There are no electronic parts to this prosthetic, either. Instead, the design utilizes a basic physics principle, one dictating that sound is created when an obstruction is introduced to the passing of air. Air is redirected from the lungs into the esophagus, where food normally passes. This obstruction can be used to create sounds that resemble regular speech.
When drummer Jason Barnes lost his arm in 2012 after an electrocution accident, he questioned whether he’d ever be able to play the drums again. He soon found Gil Weinberg, a Georgia Tech robotics professor, and the two worked together to create a prosthetic designed specifically for playing the drums. Through sensors, Barnes can control how hard he grips the stick or how hard the drum is hit — two factors important when playing. What’s even cooler is that Barnes’ prosthetic includes a second stick, which he can control separately. Needless to say it probably gives him the leg up in drumming competitions.