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The caress of a bionic hand

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For the first time, Maria Fossati found herself signing an autograph. It happened on the stage of the Rimini Web marketing festival. To leave his signature on the IIT team t-shirt to leave as a tribute to Diletta Leotta, he gripped the marker with his bionic hand. Maria Fossati is a designer, born with a congenital agenesis, her left forearm was not formed. He works in the team of the Italian Institute of Technology for the development of Softhand Pro, the bionic limb with a “soft” grip that soon, from the collaboration between surgery and biomechanics, could give back to many, together with mechanical use, even the experience of touch.

A “gentle” hand

Softhand was originally conceived for the industry, with the aim of providing robots with a grip that fits the object avoiding the risk of crushing it in a Terminator vice. And a compliance similar to that of human limbs (hitting the stiff hand of a robot can hurt a lot). The next step was to design a prosthesis: “I have used a lot of them since I was born, when I was much younger I had a kind of pliers, which I also used as a ‘weapon’ to pinch my teammates – says smiling Fossati, 41, PhD in Design at the Politecnico di Milano. She is one of over 30 prototype testers scattered across four rehabilitation centers around the world – I terrified them. ”

Technology has run its course. Now his ‘robot hand’ has two movements: opening and closing. She controls them by contracting the two residual muscles at the end of the arm, the impulses are captured by two sensors that move the fingers, all together. His grip is firm but gentle, it can’t hurt.

Mechatronic intelligence

Softhand Pro awaits a second version, with more motors to perform more complex, independent, finger movements. The real avant-garde, however, is on the horizon, the full integration of the prosthesis with the nervous system. Together with Maria Fossati, on stage there was also Manuel Catalano, researcher of the Italian Institute of Technology in the Soft robotics for human cooperation and rehabilitation laboratory. He started softhand almost ten years ago and now sees “a new generation of bionic systems that replicate the human body”. The first to “put on” his bionic hand was Catalano himself, lacing it to his arm: “By using an adaptable hand that simply opens and closes, one discovers the possibility of even more complex movements and new solutions” he recalls. The mechanism is very simple, in his words. A thread that runs along the profile of the fingers and “distributes the force like a car wheel differential. An embodied, mechanical and electronic intelligence. United at the command of a software “. Fossati and Catalano were joined on stage by AlterEgo (Ego, for friends). The IIT robot developed with the “E. Piaggio ”of the University of Pisa. Nearby, one of the team’s researchers controlled it remotely with immersive devices (visor and wearable controls). AlterEgo is equipped with two softhand for manipulating objects or opening handles. Like its colleague iCub, it is developed for a variety of tasks, including remote assistance and to be guided in emergency areas. Similar technologies also arise from the experience made in Amatrice, where the IIT experimented with a similar robot inside the town hit by the 2016 earthquake. On the trolley pushed by AlterEgo in the butler version, there were some glasses for a demonstration of the skills of soft grip of the hand. It was one of the tests with which Maria Fossati challenged herself during the Cybathlon 2020, the “cyborg” Olympics.

Feel the world

The idea that is now being worked on is to graft the prosthesis by connecting it to the nervous system, surgically. An ‘electrician’ operation, it is a matter of ‘connecting the wires well’: “With a re-innervation operation we can take the nerves that are supposed to control that limb that is not there and connect them to a muscle, to for example, the pectoral one, to amplify the signal – explains Catalano, who is also a research collaborator at the E. Piaggio Center, University of Pisa and research fellow at the Mayo Clinic (Rochester – USA) – thus creating an interface, a biohub, between the body and the prosthesis which can become bidirectional. Not only with limb control functions, but also sensory ”. An input, the command, and an output: the sense of touch. This could be a real revolution, especially for those who have lost a limb and could return to “feel” by touching. Until now, tactile perception has been achieved with connections passing, as it were, outside, through backpacks that process the signal and send it to the brain which interprets it and transforms it into sensation. The aim of the European Synergy “Natural Bionics” project, funded by the European Research Center with almost ten million euros, on the other hand, is complete integration: “With grafts of skin that is particularly sensitive to touch, for example that of the feet, they can collect signals on the hardness of an object and the roughness of a surface – continues the researcher – and from this hub comes the brain through the stimulus of this natural receptor ”.

Technology and neurosurgery

Synergy “Natural Bionics” unites the contributions of three major research institutes and their respective principal investigators. Oskar Aszmann of the Medizinischen Universität of Vienna, for the surgical part. Aszmann was among the first to perform a hand transplant and the grafting of a robotic prosthesis. Dario Farina, from Imperial College London, will be in charge of the signal processing part. Antonio Bicchi of the IIT coordinates the Soft robotics for human cooperation and rehabilitation, together with the team of researchers and engineers of which Catalano is a part, works on the design of Softhand Pro and other bionic limbs, a whole arm and a whole leg. The first results are encouraging: “A first graft has already been performed, and it works – underlines Catalano – while sensory experimentation has given good results in laboratory tests”. The project will continue until at least 2024.

Design and inclusion

Maria Fossati, in her role as tester and professional specialized in inclusive design, works with IIT engineers to improve the characteristics of Softhand Pro. Also in an aesthetic sense: “I asked for it to have a transparent finish – she explains, pointing to the silicone glove. which reveals the mechanism inside – and which therefore, unlike other prostheses, is not an imitation of a hand. It is a message of acceptance, a declaration of love and transparency ”. Fossati, however, will not undergo the grafting operation: “I was born there, for those who have an amputated limb it is different. Loses something. I, on the other hand, grew up with this normality of mine ”.

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