Open Bionics is releasing what it claims is the most affordable multi-grip bionic arm ever made, at less than half the price of its nearest competitor. Andrew Hobbs investigates how the Bristol-based company’s Hero Arm is transforming lives.

The name ‘Hero Arm’ speaks to the ambition and philosophy behind Open Bionics’ new assistive device – underlined by the company’s slogan, ‘Turning disabilities into superpowers’.

The company’s new prosthesis is far more than a conventional synthetic limb. The Hero Arm is innovative, highly capable, affordable – and 3D printed.

While the device aims to give wearers the same movement and dexterity of a biological arm, it makes no efforts to imitate one in appearance, in the uncanny way that many other prosthetics do. The Hero Arm’s design celebrates its artificial nature and focuses on what it does: enabling wearers to do more, and more easily.

This forward-looking approach is reflected in the company’s ethos. Co-founder Samantha Payne has spoken in the past of her pride in the company’s 50:50 gender split, reflecting that, “the best products are made by diverse engineering teams”.

That diversity is no mean achievement: at last year’s UK Robotics Week, UK-RAS (the UK’s umbrella organisation for robotics research) revealed figures saying that across all science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) careers, 83 percent of workers are male. In coding and computer science, the figure is closer to 90 percent male and ten percent female.

Payne co-founded Open Bionics in 2014 with robotics engineer Joel Gibbard, recognising the potential of 3D printing to make bionic arms accessible to more and more amputees.

Gibbard has been experimenting with robotic arms since the age of 17. The Hero Arm is the culmination of hundred of prototypes and countless hours of hardware and software refinement – software that the company is planning to make open source to enable users and developers to fine tune and experiment with the device.

The hero we need

Despite one in every 1,000 people in the UK being an amputee (an estimated 65,640 people) their options are surprisingly limited. Most existing upper limb prostheses exist as simple hooks or grippers, offering limited functionality and mechanical actions that lack the dexterity needed to carry out many everyday tasks.

The fitting process for most prosthetic limbs is often tricky too, demanding refinements based on the patient’s feedback over time, and made more complicated by variations in swelling in the wearer’s arm.

Bionic hands, meanwhile, can cost up to £60,000 apiece. Open Bionics’ Hero Arm will launch at a fraction of that cost – around £5,000 – thanks to the savings offered by a combination of 3D printing and tablet-enabled 3D scanning of the wearer. The company claims this makes it the most affordable bionic arm or hand currently available.

Girl with Hero Arm
Children as young as eight can be fitter with the Hero Arm.

The 3D scan ensures a custom design that’s perfectly fitted to the wearer, after which the largely automated construction process takes around 40 hours to 3D print each new arm.

After an initial Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign, which highlighted the demand and enthusiasm for Gibbard’s work, the company has been rewarded with both public accolades and funding for its work. In recent years, Open Bionics has scooped a James Dyson Award (in 2015), a Wired Social Innovation Award (in 2016), and a $1 million UAE AI & Robotics International Award for Good, all of which gave Open Bionics the impetus to create the Hero Arm.

Hero Arm features

As, Samantha Payne summarised in a recent Business Insider interview:

The future of prosthetics is low cost, lightweight, multi-grip, really great control. And even further in the future, it’s all about hyper-personalisation.

The prosthesis works using sensors to detect the muscles in the wearer’s arm – in much the same way that contracting and relaxing those muscles controls a biological hand.

Other features include:

  • Lights, sounds, and vibrations: a suite of tools that gives wearers feedback on the status of their bionic hand.
  • Lightweight: the full prosthesis weighs less than 1kg.
  • Custom covers, which allow wearers to show their own style and create different looks for different outfits.
  • Posable wrist, which can be rotated through 180 degrees.
  • Posable thumb, to help the wearer pick up small objects.
  • Ages eight and up: for the first time, a multi-grip myoelectric prosthesis is available for children.
  • Proportional control, which allows wearers to control the speed of finger movements for delicate tasks.

Following a successful initial stage of an NHS trial with the Bristol Centre for Enablement, involving seven children, the test programme has expanded to include 15 children and young people from around the UK.

Open Bionics Hero Arm wearers
The Hero Arm can be customised to the wearers taste, even replicating sci-fi and Disney characters.

Internet of Business says

The technology used in the Hero Arm is not in itself ground-breaking, when broken down into its constituent parts. Indeed, it needs to be relatively simple in order to be economically viable. However, it’s the way in which 3D printing, scanning, and robotics have been brought together to such good effect that makes Open Bionics’ product and approach so innovative – along with its commitment to diversity.

It’s this combination that has allowed the company to produce something so lightweight, capable, and affordable – and potentially transformative. Hopefully, it won’t be long before the Hero Arm is offered in NHS clinics throughout the UK.

What other £5,000 prosthetic allows wearers to pick up marbles?

On top of this, by making the technology open source, Open Bionics is expanding the potential of its devices, to the benefit of its customers. Already, Georgia Tech has married the technology with ultrasound to enable the fine control necessary for a wearer to play the piano.

Beyond the Hero Arm, Open Bionics has expressed plans to apply its technology to legs (and their composite joints), as well as to exoskeletons to aid those with restricted movement.

Images courtesy of Open Bionics.