The European Commission (EC) is currently funding three research projects that could lead to major innovations in the design and function of prosthetic hands.
The objective of the NanoBioTact (nano-engineering biomimetic tactile sensors) project is to develop an articulated "bionic finger" with a sense of touch. The finger, which is being developed by Unilever Corporation, West Sussex, England, is covered with thousands of tiny tactile sensors that will lead into a vibrating haptic feedback system. Each sensor is less than a millimeter wide, and together the sensors make up a matrix that is designed to detect shape, vibration, and other surface information.
Simon Watson, PhD, who is leading the project, told the United Kingdom's Evening Standard, "We want to develop a machine with a sense of touch. This brings us closer to the prospect of prosthetic hands that can provide the same sort of sensory feedback as the natural senses.
"One application is robotic devices for use by surgeons, where the surgeon receives feedback from an instrument on what it is feeling, via gloves."
According to Unilever researchers, the first working prototypes could be available within 18 months.
The SafeHand project, which is being led by Italian researcher Maria Chiara Carrozza, of Rome's Università Campus Bio-Medico, aims to develop a cybernetic prosthetic hand with exceptional feedback to the wearer. According to the project's engineering partner, the ARTS Lab at Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna, Italy, the hand would "be felt by an amputee as the lost natural limb, delivering a natural sensory feedback by means of the stimulation of some specific afferent nerves" and "be controlled in a natural way by processing the efferent neural signals coming from the central nervous system...."
The SmartHand project, the work of an international team hailing from universities in Denmark, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, and Sweden, aims to "develop an intelligent artificial hand that looks and feels like a real hand." The ARTS Lab describes the potential end product as "a dextrous robotic hand endowed with 16 degrees of freedom and able to flex/extend each finger independently and to oppose the thumb to different finger tips for providing different hand shapes and grasps adaptive to objects to be grasped and manipulated." The hand will be as complex on the outside as on the inside: its skin will contain sensors that give feedback about multiple factors, including whether an object in the hand's grasp is slipping away from it.
While no definitive production date was listed for the projects, all will be funded by the EC through 2009.