Feeling A Poke On Your Robotic Hand
This year, about 280,000 people in the US are living with a spinal cord injury, according to the National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center. Depending on the severity, damaged nerve connections lead to effects ranging from a partial loss of feeling to complete loss of motion in different limbs.
(Feeling a poke on the palm)
“If you lose that sense of touch, you have a really difficult time” grabbing, holding, and manipulating different objects, says Richard Gaunt, a neuroengineer at the University of Pittsburgh who works on touch feedback for prosthetics. To safely interact with other human beings and handle delicate objects such as eggs, humans need more than just control–they need to be able to modify control based on touch feedback.
In the May 2016 issue of IEEE Spectrum Dustin Tyler, head of the Functional Neural Interface Lab at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, described technology that allows amputees to feel a robotic arm prosthesis. That technique relied on electrically stimulating peripheral nerves using electrodes implanted into the user’s arm. The system improved the delicate motion capabilities in a robotic arm. But the technology doesn’t work if the connection between limbs and brain is absent, such as with spinal cord injuries, Gaunt says.
Science fiction movie lovers were shown this idea at the end of the 1980 film Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (*spoiler alert!*). In the film's final battle, Darth Vader cuts Luke Skywalker's hand off. It is replaced by droid surgeons. In the video below, the robotic hand demonstrates sensation when poked by the surgeon (start at about 0:20 seconds below):
(Start 0:20 seconds to see Star Wars robotic hand sensation)
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