When bionic technology offers a helping hand


If you dig into the history books, you’ll find a reference to the Roman general Marcus Sergius, who is considered the first documented wearer of a prosthetic arm. While artificial limbs have been used since ancient times, bionic limbs, which use different technologies and can be integrated into human body parts, are a recent invention.

In the 1990s, Robert Campbell Aird, who had lost his right arm to cancer, was fitted with the world’s first bionic arm. Developed by the prosthetics R&D team at the Princess Margaret Rose Orthopedic Hospital in Edinburgh, it featured motorized shoulder, elbow, wrist and fingers. It was controlled by electronic micro-sensors and weighed 1.8 kg. A BBC report from August 1998 described it as the world’s first fully mobile “bionic” arm.

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Since then, startups and researchers have attempted to not only make these prosthetics affordable, but also more advanced, ranging from an inflatable robotic hand to a mind-controlled prosthetic arm. Now, Mumbai-based startup Robo Bionics hopes to stand out with its “Grippy” semi-bionic artificial hand, launched here a year ago.

This battery-powered artificial robotic hand, 3D printed and processed using additive manufacturing techniques, provides multi-grip sense of touch, feel and control for people who are missing an arm at birth or have one. lost one as a result of amputation. Weighing just 650g with the plug, it allows basic daily tasks: opening and closing a bottle cap, holding a door handle, carrying a bag, even driving a car with two hands.

Affordable, compared to imported devices, and easy to maintain – the startup says most parts are available locally and can even be replaced at a watch repair shop – can Grippy be a game-changer in this segment?

So far, Robo Bionics has released and installed about 15 units. 20 other units are under development. Currently, a Grippy device for an amputation below the elbow costs 2.25-2.5 lakh, based on the complexity of making the socket. The startup partners with fitting centers and NGOs in major cities to make the device accessible. “We are now also starting to link and educate hospitals,” says Llewellyn D’sa, 30, co-founder and CEO of Robo Bionics, in a video interview.

This battery-powered artificial robotic hand provides multi-grip sense of touch, feel and control for people who have been missing an arm since birth or have lost one due to amputation.
(Bionic Robo)

The market potential could be huge – according to various estimates India has over half a million amputees. Half a dozen startups are already on the ground: these include Bengaluru-based Social Hardware, which works with nonprofits to provide low-cost assistive devices; DeeDee Labs, based in Pune, Maharashtra, which offers a range of prostheses; and Hyderabad startup Makers Hive.

D’sa thinks they are different. Because, while other startups focus on technical developments – like integrating smart technology and smartphone connectivity, etc. – Robo Bionics wanted to focus more on “a user’s needs”. “It allowed us to reduce costs and provide the necessary functionality,” adds D’sa. The startup is experimenting with a powered elbow joint and wrist connector to expand the capabilities of the device.

The device took years to develop. “In 2014, I joined IIT (Indian Institute of Technology), Patna for my Masters program (in Mechanical Engineering), where I met my classmate Jayant Vyas, who was missing a hand. In the same batch we had another student who was quadriplegic and had an electric wheelchair. I wondered why one person had help and the other didn’t,” D’sa says.

Vyas had lost a hand since birth. He had tried a few devices earlier, including a cosmetic hand and a body-powered device, but they didn’t work. One offered no functionality, the other was too heavy. Bionic or myoelectric devices – externally powered prostheses – were either too expensive or offered little functionality. Imported devices would cost 24-25 million. “With a myoelectric hand in mind, I began to design a possible solution with five-finger functionality. I discovered during my research that a lack of ‘sense of touch’ or feedback was a problem in many bionic hands. Because of this, and the steep learning curve required to use these traditional devices, many users were rejecting these devices. These are the two problems I wanted to solve,” says D’ her.

Llewellyn D'sa (second from left) and the Robo Bionics team.  Working on early prototypes, the team developed their own MMG, or mechanomyogram, sensors.

Llewellyn D’sa (second from left) and the Robo Bionics team. Working on early prototypes, the team developed their own MMG, or mechanomyogram, sensors.
(Bionic Robo)

Despite his limited experience in coding and electronic design, he set out to build a prototype, which was completed in 2016. It was too big. He later teamed up with his bandmate Kumari Priyanka and fellow junior college friend Anil Nair. Working on early prototypes, the team developed their own MMG, or mechanomyogram, sensors. It was an upgrade to EMG, or electromyography, sensors used as a control signal for prostheses. “EMG sensors work well under normal ambient conditions. But when you’re out in the field, if it’s too hot and you’re sweating, it interferes with sensor functions and leads to false triggers,” D’sa says.

Globally, the technology used in bionic prostheses, particularly for upper limb amputation, has evolved rapidly, influenced not only by design but also by affordability. Last year, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States and Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China designed a soft, lightweight and potentially inexpensive neuroprosthetic hand that allowed users to perform a host of everyday activities, from shaking hands to petting a cat. This smart hand not only had a tactile feedback mechanism, but was also durable.

The Robo Bionics team took inspiration from mobile phone vibration patterns to incorporate haptic feedback into Grippy. There are several vibration patterns that the device sends to a user on the surface of their skin, to understand whether the hand is opening or closing, and the type of object they are holding. The hand can be fully charged in about two hours and can work for 8-10 hours on a full charge.

Each prototype was tested with 8 to 10 people. “After several trials and six to seven prototypes, we had the MVP version of Grippy in 2018. It looked and functioned like a hand, but needed a few more finishing touches before it could be used as a functional prosthesis,” says D ‘her. The next step was to perform third-party lab testing and obtain the necessary regulatory approvals for the medical device. The covid-19 pandemic delayed plans by six to eight months. The product was finally launched in January 2021.

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