Imagine having a prosthetic hand and being able to light a match, open a jar, tie your shoelaces or zip up a jacket. Sounds like a leap into the future? And yet it's not. Just ask Maria Fossati (40), a scientist at the Italian Institute of Technology, who conceived and designed SoftHand Pro, the prosthesis that she herself uses, as she has had no left forearm since birth due to a congenital anomaly.
"My hand is an experimental prosthesis based on neuroscience principles and soft robotics methods. It is very robust, but also exceptionally capable of adapting to the objects it grips because its operation is based on the principles of soft robotics, i.e. the importance of a structure that is not rigid, but yields in its interactions with its surroundings. It can easily perform roughly 90% of the grips made by a human hand". With her 'bionic' hand, Maria Fossati knows how to grip other people's hands, sharpen pencils and screw in light bulbs. "At the Italian Institute of Technology, I wear a hand with a transparent finish, revealing its artificiality. I think that's fair. It does not create problems or discomfort for anyone". The difficulty arises when you step out into the open and realise that the world is not necessarily ready to observe a bionic hand. So I think it is vital to culturally work on inclusiveness". Her sensitivity has driven Maria Fossati to become involved in academic research on issues related to design and disability, also dealing with accessibility and usability of environments and services.
Just what is extra special about the SoftHand Pro prosthesis?
First and foremost, it is a constantly evolving prosthesis, one that is always open to the latest innovations. More than 30 users in four rehabilitation centres worldwide are currently using the robotic prosthesis to improve its usability, design and suitability, including myself. IIT Soft Robotics for Human Cooperation and Rehabilitation lab director Antonio Bicchi often says that our research never stops, as we are always searching to improve and explore different avenues. We do this in part because of the feedback we receive directly from people around the world who wear the SoftHand Pro prosthesis. This is not only valuable but also an inspiration for our work.
This prosthesis has even helped you participate in the cyborg Olympics in November. Can you tell us about that?
The Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich (ETH Zurich) organised the Cyborg Olympics as an international event for people with physical disabilities from 23 countries worldwide, who compete as pilots in various disciplines that reproduce everyday tasks, using the latest technology such as robotic prostheses, exoskeletons and new-generation wheelchairs.
Maria Fossati testing and training her robotic hand
What was your test?
The competition called for a challenge in setting the table for breakfast, laundry, tidying up a table, using household tools (hammer, scissors, etc.), blind shape recognition and arranging glasses into a pyramid. Our team came in second.
An excellent achievement…
Certainly. But the aim of the event, in addition to raising public awareness of the needs of people living with a disability, is to show the state of the art of technologies developed in this field and to promote collaboration between research centres, encouraging the development, optimisation and marketing of devices.
So what are the goals for the future?
The SoftHand Pro model is at the heart of the new European Synergy Grant Natural Bionics project, which aims at a neurosurgical integration of the prosthesis with the spinal circuits of suitable subjects. This should allow users to move the prosthesis and feel it even more like a natural part of their body.