Bionics is a brilliant synthesis of poles apart branches of science that explores the interplay between electronics, human psychology and robotics. Intrinsically, it is one of the latest branches of science. Modern editions of popular dictionaries explain the word ‘bionic’ as a fictional character with artificial body parts; beings that are capable of doing things that average humans cannot do. The science of bionics has been around since the 1990s and has evolved exceptionally over the last decade.
Bionics is said to be a futuristic mechanical wonder. Today, stories of how electromechanics attached and implanted into the human body are wiping the words like human disability and limitations off our dictionaries.
Next Generation of Exoskeletons And Robotic Prosthetics
The world’s first Cybathlon, an Olympics for bionic athletes will be hosted in Switzerland in October 2016 where there will be races for competitors wearing bionic prosthetic limbs and exoskeletons. Paralyzed participants will be able to take part in the various games with the help of brain-computer interface. Let’s take a look at some of these bionic technologies that would allow people who never had the opportunity before to run, dance, play and compete in games.
In 2012, Tamara Mena was able to walk again with the help of an exoskeleton bionic suit after six years in a wheelchair. Paralyzed from midchest down as a result of a grievous car accident, Mena had very little hopes of being able to walk again. Exoskeletons monikered jeans of the future by Ekso Bionics CEO Eythor Bendor, are leveled enough to be worn in economy class.
Ekso Bionics is an odds-on favorite in robotic exoskeleton technology that will one day replace or augment human capabilities. Headed by Bender, the California-based company has licensed its hydraulic-powered anthropomorphic exoskeleton technology used in making the HULC or human universal load carrier to Lockheed Martin for military use. The HULC can help soldiers carry up to 200 pounds of heavy combat gear for extended periods of time. Ekso Bionics first medical product, the Ekso, was to rehabilitation centers in the U.S. and Europe and South Africa. The Ekso is a wearable bionic suit that helps survivors of stroke, spinal cord injury and other forms of lower extremity weakness to walk again.
Ekso Bionics is currently developing an exoskeleton called “the REI Ekso”, a recreational outerwear that propels superhuman grit and strength. It may someday develop robotic suits for industrial workers such as miners, dockers and construction workers.
There is no therapy to bring recovery for people who have lost all control over their limbs as a result of motor-complete injuries. Furthermore, such patients have limited lower extremities’ exercising options. A wheelchair can be quite critical, averting potentially fatal urinary tract infections, cardiovascular diseases and skin ulcers, although facilitating bone density, strength and flexibility. The bionic exoskeleton integrated with a Segway-style balance and upgraded ankle joints bridges the gap for people with complete injuries. Exoskeleton will recalibrate the range of human possibilities – help stroke victims relearning to walk, soldiers humping body armor and builders hoisting sacks of concrete and hiking the wilderness.
Other notable exoskeletons includes the HAL series by Japanese company Cyberdyne, ReWalk invented by the Israeli entrepreneur, New Zealand’s Rex Bionics, which are approved for use in physical therapy and rehab. Quite similar to the HULC, the Sarco XOS 2 exoskeleton by Raytheon is a robotic suit developed for military and industrial uses and can help wearer’s carry up to 200 pounds with little or no effort.
Researchers are interested in military technology, in addition helping people to regain normal bodily functions. A few programs are developing strength suits for military purposes, including US Special Operations Command’s TALOS, an advanced infantry uniform which would help military personnel achieve superhuman strength with better ballistic protection. DARPA’s web warrior program seeks to develop soft, flexible supersuit for dismounted soldiers to prevent and reduce musculoskeletal injuries and improve their physical and cognitive abilities during mission-oriented tasks.
Med-El a company led by Ingeborg and Erwin Hochmair, is currently the world’s second largest producer of cochlear implants. One of its most elaborate devices is the ‘bionic ear’ that has been credited as the world’s first device to have replaced a sensory organ, and stands as a milestone in medical technology.
The bionic ear is handmade for personal application. Christofer Toumazou’s (chief scientist at Imperial College London’s Institute of Biomedical Engineering) the most recent invention of a USB stick that can decode a patient’s DNA was involved in the developing of cochlear implants.
The cochlear implant also known as ‘bionic ear’ comprises of an external sound process that receives sound and processes it through a minicomputer. The sounds are then converted into digital information that is sent internally into the cochlear (inner part of the ear which processes sound). The digital signal is sent alongside the hearing nerve to the brain. The world’s first cochlear implant was performed by Professor Graeme Clark in 1978 on Rod Saunders at the Melbourne Royal Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital. More than 219,000 people worldwide have benefitted from Clark’s cochlear implants through which they can understand only muffled sound.
Hochmair’s bionic ear boasts an array of highly sophisticated technology that is today helping those with auditory neuropathy spectrum disorder understand speech and not just muffled sound, ultimately bringing the full measure of their metamorphic potential.
IMPLANTED PROSTHETIC ARM
Most amputees are able to utilize modern prosthetics by attaching them in the morning and removing at night. Prosthetics available in the market are not a part of the body and do not offer any kind of sensory sensations.
An unnamed Swedish amputee, however, wears an entirely different kind of prosthetics that is in fact connected to his bone, muscles and sensory nerves. The result is a mind-controlled prosthetic arm that helps advanced movements, less discomfort and touch sensation.
The osseointegrated (bone-anchored) implant system is the most promising piece of prosthetic technology in the field of science. Through osseointegration, one can create a long-term stable fusion between man and machine, the ultimate definition of bionics.
The artificial arm, directly attached to the skeleton provides mechanical stability, while the nerves and muscles interfaced through neuromuscular electrodes control the system. The prosthetic arm can be worn continuously and helps to improve overall comfort and control as time passes by.
A team of EU researchers recently published a study in the Science Transnational Medicine journal, describing how by implanting electrodes into a patient’s arm, they could successfully attach the prototype prosthetic arm (nicknamed the Deka or “Luke” arm) to his nerves.
The patient felt a pretty much close experience to have a normal hand with the Deka. The only setback with the osseointegration technology is that, it hasn’t unlocked the key to delivering sensory feedback from the arm to the brain. The method is yet to undergo commercializing. However, researchers are keen to find the missing link between sophisticated neural interfaces to control prosthetics and thus, treat more patients using the advanced technology.
Similarly, the i-Limp Pulse is a bionic arm that allows users to handle heavy or delicate objects and customize their grips accordingly. It looks similar to Darth Vader’s bionic hand and is much tougher in prospective – it can handle more than 200 pounds by applying additional force through a pulsing effect. Touch Bionics, the company behind the i-Limb Hand, the i-Limb software was named as one of the top 50 inventions of 2008 by Time magazine. It has changed the lives of more than 1,200 patients.
WHAT COULD BE NEXT?
In the early 1990s, the field of bionics wasn’t just nascent but a bit depressing too. Prosthetics normally came in a shame inducing Barbie doll Cosmesis with a half-human and half- plastic look. Most devices were sheltered or thrown in the back room of hospitals.
Today, with the prosthetics business is beginning to boom, and designers giving their creations not just nerve integration and myoelectrics to offer sensory functions, but also an ebullient carbon-fiber sparkle, such products are seamlessly blending in everyday life. Once they were seen as purely medical devices, today they’re also turning into expensive fashion prosthetics.
Researchers are making technological breakthroughs by taking advantage of newer sensors, motors and batteries as well as manufacturing methods to develop cheaper and lighter bionics that can be snapped apart and fitted into a knapsack. By receiving rave reviews from therapists and patients, the most of these bionic products have positioned themselves as a trailblazer in the field of prosthetics.
Imagine a future world where biomechatronic and regenerative repair of humans would make a profound difference in people’s lives. The science of bionics is not just to end disabilities and make humans stronger, capable and faster. Bionics is indeed bringing us closer to the full potential of our metamorphic potential by embedding our humanity into electromechanics.