Space & Innovation

Paralympic Athlete Debuts Bionic Hand

Canadian skier to try a different kind of competition at the inaugural Cybathlon this fall.

Recent advances in limb prosthetics are actually pretty startling. Emerging neuroscience technologies connecting the human brain to artificial hands are allowing people to feel tactile sensations and even control fine movement using only their thoughts.

In Canada, researchers are fitting a paralympic athlete with an advanced bionic hand that will allow for entirely new categories of competition, reports CNET.

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A research team at Simon Fraser University recently posted an online video of their ongoing work with paralympic skier Danny Letain, who lost his left arm in a workplace accident 35 years ago.

The robotic arm prosthesis is considered one of the most advanced in the world, and can accurately be called a bionic arm. Dubbed the called M.A.S.S. Impact (Muscle Activity Sensor Strip), the device uses armband pressure sensors that track movement in the user's existing upper arm muscles.

Dedicated algorithms then process those movements to determine the user's intent. Various "grip patterns" emerge from the process, giving the user unprecedented control over fine motor actions. As Letain testifies in the video, he's enjoying the sensation of actually moving his fingers for the first time since his accident.

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The M.A.S.S. Impact technology was initially developed for stroke patients, but may have wider applications with amputees, researchers say.

Letain will be participating in the upcoming Cybathlon event in Zurich later this year, using his new robotic arm to compete in events like opening jars and slicing bread. It's not racing down the slopes, Letain says, but in many ways it's much harder.

Sponsored by marquee research institution ETH Zurich, the inaugural Cybathlon will feature athletes with physical disabilities competing head-to-head using robotic assistive devices. The SFU team is the sole Canadian entrant in the Cybathlon, which will field around 80 teams from more than 30 countries.

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"The main goal in this competition is to provide a platform for the development of novel assistive technologies that can be used in daily living," says Likas Karim-Merhi, team leader of the M.A.S.S. Impact project at SFU, in the video.

You can see for yourself below. Letain has a fascinating perspective on how prosthetic technology can allow athletes to do what they do best - compete.

click to play video

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