MIT's inflatable bionic hand is a cheap leap forward for prosthetics

It might sound odd on paper, but the new device could vastly improve the lives of amputees.

Contrary to many outsider opinions, a lot of amputees and limb-different people out there are not huge fans of currently available prosthetics, no matter how seemingly advanced they may first appear. There is a huge number of factors to consider for each person, and protheses’ costs are often prohibitive for many potential benefactors. But researchers at MIT working alongside a team at Shanghai Jiao Tong University have unveiled a new breakthrough in the field of neuroprosthetics — an “inflatable robotic hand” offering amputees real-time tactile control at potentially a fraction of similar devices’ costs.

With an estimated cost of only $500, the new prosthetic is constructed using a cheap, commercial “elastomer” called EcoFlex covering “five balloon-like fingers, each embedded with segments of fiber, similar to articulated bones in actual fingers,” according to MIT. Each digit is then connected to a 3-D-printed “palm,” which is in turn controlled by a simple pneumatic device instead of mounted electrical motors. “This system, including a small pump and valves, can be worn at the waist, significantly reducing the prosthetic’s weight,” explain the MIT researchers.

The team behind the new prosthetic attachment has also released an impressive demonstration video showcasing some of what the new device can do, including pouring a carton of liquid, petting a cat, and zipping up a suitcase. Check out the compilation below for a better look at the system. Sure, the hand itself is a bit large (researchers referred to it as the “Big Hero” hand in reference to the robot in Big Hero 6), but it seems like a small price to pay at the moment for more accessible options for those within the limb-different communities.

Potential added benefits — Researchers were also excited to learn that their new device not only performed required tasks, but potentially improved sensation and real-time control in patients. In an experiment, “the researchers blindfolded the volunteer and found he could discern which prosthetic finger they poked and brushed” while also noting they were able to “feel” different sized bottles placed in the prosthetic hand, as well as lift them. MIT notes that it is currently in the process of filing a patent on the new device, with the hope to move it into mass production in the near future.