BME Researchers Push Limits of Robotics

Wednesday, October 15th, 2008

Technological advances in prosthetic hands could give amputees much more dexterity.

October 15, 2008 — USC research scientists at the  Viterbi School of Engineering developed a groundbreaking new prosthetic hand mechanism they said has the potential to revolutionize the fields of prosthetics and robotics.

Developed by Dr. Gerald Loeb, a USC professor of biomedical engineering, and with the help of three USC doctoral students, the project was born two and a half years ago when Loeb realized there was no available technology that provided required touch-sensing for prosthetics.

The prosthetic hand mechanism, created as part of the Biomimetic Tactile Sensing Project, utilizes sensor pads applied to the fingertips of the prosthesis that allow high frequency vibrations to be sent back to the body and imitate automatic reflexes.

This innovation will allow prosthesis users to move their hands with greater accuracy and dexterity while performing daily tasks such as washing dishes or holding objects, Loeb said.

“We wanted to improve the function and the ease of use of prosthetics,” he said. “Prosthesis users will be able to acquire better prosthetics so that they can use their hands the way normal people use their hands without having to pay attention to every little conscious decision.”

Loeb said the group was inspired primarily by the potential biomedical implications of the project, along with the chance to improve robotics technology.

“We just appreciated the importance of having sensitive touch to handle objects,” Loeb said. “It’s one of those things that we take for granted, but as soon as we try to design a device to interact with objects, you realize that without actual hands, it’s difficult or impossible to get much functionality.”

Doctoral student Nick Wettels, who was the first graduate student to begin work on the project in 2006, said the team is currently looking at applying for grant money for its research and exploring marketing options.

In order to implement the use of biomimetic tactile sensors in prostheses and robotics, Loeb and biomedical engineering doctoral students Wettels, Matt Borzage and Jeremy Fishel formed a start-up company called SynTouch LLC to explore opportunities to commercialize this technology.

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