New Airbender hand prosthesis is powered by the user’s breathing

23rd August 2022
Paige West

Researchers from the University of Oxford have developed a new air-powered hand that provides a lightweight, low-maintenance and easy-to-use prosthetic option.

Several different prosthetic options are currently on the market, most notably the Bowden cable-driven body-powered prosthetics which were developed in the early 19th Century. However, these cable-driven systems are often uncomfortable and anatomically unsuitable, particularly for young patients. They are also expensive and of high-maintenance.

The new approach, published in the journal Prosthesis, provides an alternative body-powered device for users in situations where cost, maintenance, comfort, and ease of use are primary considerations.  

Senior author Professor Jeroen Bergmann, Department of Engineering Science, University of Oxford said: “Our breathing-powered device provides a novel prosthetic option that can be used without limiting any of the user’s body movements. It is one of the first truly new design approaches for power and control of a body-powered prosthetic since the emergence of the cable-driven system over two centuries ago.”

With this new device, users power a small purpose-built Tesla turbine by doing something that comes naturally to everyone – breathing. The turbine accurately controls the prosthetic finger movements and gearing in the unit determines the speed of the grasping action.

The volume of air needed to power the unit can even be achieved by young children. And seeing as it’s cable and harness free, the device is lightweight.

The researchers have been working with LimbBo, a UK-based charity for children with limb differences, to develop and refine the device.

Jane Hewitt, Trustee of LimbBo, said: “One of our aims at The LimbBo Foundation is to ensure that all our children have access to any devices which will aid their day-to-day lives. No two limb differences are the same and what will help one child will not be suitable for another. Currently, there is some choice available regarding prosthetics but there are still children who need a completely different approach. For many, their lack of an elbow joint severely limits their access to prosthetic devices and so we welcomed the chance to be involved with Professor Jeroen Bergmann to look at different approaches. This is an exciting development for many of our children.

“We welcome this research as a completely different approach to enabling our children to have the help that a prosthetic such as this would give them. The element of choice is important, and we would fully support any research and development plans that enable this. We feel that by including us in discussions the team in Oxford really do want the best for our children.”

A spokesperson from Mobility India, an NGO based in Bengaluru, India working with the researchers on user testing said: “The breathing-powered prosthetic (Airbender) has the potential to broaden prosthetic options for children and adolescents, especially in India and other developing countries that lack appropriate technology.”

First author Dr Vikranth H. Nagaraja, Department of Engineering Science, University of Oxford said: “Over 40 million individuals worldwide are estimated to have limb differences – most with no access to any form of prosthetic care. Besides, upper-limb prosthetics currently available to patients are often neither affordable nor appropriate, especially in low-resource settings. We hope our research represents a step-change in making prosthetics more widely accessible and helping overcome challenges with current options.”

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