Performing miracles - the past and future of prosthetics

INDEX: Design to Improve Life®

Discover how bodily augmentation has grown from rudimentary static add-on limbs to advanced medical technology that is making the impossible possible - helping paraplegic people walk again.

Mobility for Each One
The $8.00 prosthetic leg

Up to 20,000 people are killed or maimed by landmines every year, according to the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. Prosthetics are essential for many who suffer limb-loss but with most starting at $5000, they’re often completely out of reach for many that need them.

In a bid to create a quality yet affordable prosthetic, designer Sébastien Dubois came up with Mobility for Each One: a prosthetic foot made to replicate natural movement.

Dubois' design uses a special "energy-return" method. It harnesses the power from the toe and foot movement and channels it back into the leg, making the design more ergonomic and easier to walk with when compared to many other low-cost prosthetics.

Made to the standards of the Red Cross, the design can be fitted to various types of upper leg prosthetics. It's also light, durable, water-resistant and easy to clean.

As prosthetic limbs are generally built to withstand only three to five years of wear and tear, they need to be regularly replaced. The product can be made in any local conventional workshop using easily found materials, all for just US$8.00.

iLIMB Hand
The world's first bionic hand

While prosthetics are an essential solution for those living with limb loss, many artificial limbs currently on the market are ill-fitting, have limited functionality or are extremely expensive. And a poorly created prosthetic isn't just uncomfortable, it can also further injure the wearer.

The i-Limb Hand by Touch Bionics is a revolutionary prosthetic that helps restore lost functionality. The design incorporates the company's patented and groundbreaking gesture control, powered by i-mo™ technology, which responds to the muscles in the patient's residual arm.

Electrodes are placed at two predetermined muscle points on the patient’s arm. The electrodes pick up the muscle signals when the patient contracts their muscles, signals are then sent to a microprocessor which causes the device to move.

Launched in 2007, the design is the first and only upper limb prosthesis that allows the wearer to change grips with a simple gesture. The newest i-Limb comes pre-programmed with a selection of practical grips, which can easily be changed using the app.

According to Hugh Gill, one of the designers behind the electronic and mechanical components, the design is a “very emotional product” and really gives back to society.

"Watching some of these patients is humbling when you see how you can help them, especially the military guys," says Gill. "There’s always tears."

Bespoke Fairings
Amputees design their bodies from a place of empowerment

As Aimee Mullins, record-breaking Paralympics athlete put it: "a prosthetic limb doesn’t need to replace loss, it can stand as a symbol that the wearer has the power to create whatever they want to create in that space."

This is the exact sentiment that Bespoke Fairings is built on. Their highly creative and personalised prosthetics aim to not only meet the wearer’s need but challenge the entire perception of prostheses.

These "designer body parts" use advanced 3D printing to create customised prosthetic limb casings. These casting can then be wrapped in embroidered leather, shimmering metal or whatever the wearer might want.

The products are perfectly moulded to the wearer’s individual ergonomic characteristics, making it more comfortable and maximising the ease and natural feel of movement.

"It’s unfortunate that so many people have had a product that is such a major part of their lives that was so under-designed," says co-founder Scott Summit. "Humans are anything but one-size-fits-all and we want to recognise that."

This kind of personalised mobility is true empowerment and control. People who society once considered to be disabled, can now become architects of their own identities.

IKO Creative Prosthetic System
Kids use their imagination to make new limbs a reality

Children with missing limbs have to navigate everyday life through the filter of disability. A limb may only be a single part of a person, but missing or losing one can dramatically impact self-esteem and personal identity. Growing up is hard enough without these added challenges.

The IKO Creative Prosthetic System strives to turn disability into functionality, imagination and socialisation. The project gives kids creative control to design their own prosthetic limbs with custom add-ons like a laser pointer or a mixing spoon.

The creative process is collaborative and engages disabled children, their peers, and families in a fun social environment. There’s almost no limit to what kids can dream up and build together using Legos and prototypes.

"Currently, I feel that prosthetics are not really designed for kids,” says Colombian designer Carlos Arturo Torres Tovar. “Yes, they're functional in a traditional way but kids with disabilities need more than a traditional tool."

Having access to prosthetics is only one element of living a full life despite having a disability. The social and psychological aspects are equally important, and with IKO, kids now have a non-threatening, playful way to approach these challenges.

Tovar is now working to introduce IKO into Colombian schools as a club initiative. "Kids will be able to co-create, collaborate and learn about robotics," he explains. "They'll also be able to learn programming by building, prototyping and testing in real-time."

"Design is such an important part of finding solutions and how being empathic can lead to a more accurate answer to human needs," says Tovar.

The wearable suit helping people to walk again

Most of us can’t even begin to fathom how difficult it would be wheelchair bound. Aside from initially having to rely on help for almost everything, one of the hardest deprivations expressed by paraplegics is the inability to stand up and meet people at eye-level.

Launched in 2009, the EKSO™ was the first of its kind. A brilliantly designed bionic suit that made the impossible possible: enabling paraplegics to walk again.

While it may look like something out of an Alien movie, the suit is specially designed for people with lower-extremity paralysis or weakness.

The exoskeleton is battery-powered and uses a combination of motors, sensors, along with patient assist with balance and body positioning, to allow the user to stand and walk.

The ready-to-wear suit is designed for the user to easily get in and out of the device either on their own or with minimal assistance. An experienced user can transfer from their wheelchair and into the Ekso™ in less than five minutes.

In 2016, Ekso Bionics received the first FDA clearance exoskeleton for use with stroke and spinal cord injury levels to C7. To date, they’re the first and only company providing a rehabilitative exoskeleton for the stroke population.

The brain implant to help the paralysed regain mobility

To date, all forms of wheelchairs, bionics or exoskeletons have to be physically operated with the arms or control panels. But a group researchers are developing a device that could be the missing puzzle piece between mind and prosthetic.

The Stentrode, developed by Researchers from the University of Melbourne, is a tiny brain implant that can control an exoskeleton powered by the wearer's thoughts.

The matchstick-sized implant is crafted from an alloy covered with electrodes and is inserted into the brain via a small catheter. As the procedure is non-invasive, it’s safer, there’s no need for extended recovery time and minimal risk of infection.

When the implant expands, it presses electrodes against the patient’s blood vessel wall close to the brain, where it can record neural information and translate these signals into physical commands. The wearer can then wirelessly control their exoskeleton or bionic wearable, just as if they were controlling their own limbs.

Researchers say the implant could be pivotal for those with Parkinson’s disease, motor neuron disease, obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression. They also believe it could even help predict and manage seizures in epileptic patients.

Human clinical trials are being conducted on five patients, from the Royal Melbourne Hospital, who are suffering from paralysis due to spinal cord injuries, stroke and motor neuron disease. If Stentrode is established, it will help pave the way for more life-changing applications of brain-machine interfaces.

Credits: Story

Mobility for Each One, Department for International Development, Touch Bionics, Bespoke Fairings, TEDx, Carlos Arturo Tovar, Ekso Bionics, the University of Melbourne and

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.