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SFU builds better bionic hand for 1st cyborg Olympics

Paralympian models progress of SFU researchers

Image Credits: Tatum Miller

“The most exciting moment… was feeling my left index finger and the little finger for the first time since my accident.”

These were the words of Canadian Paralympic skier Danny Letain, after demoing a new bionic hand prosthesis built by SFU researchers from the School of Engineering Science. The team is working with Letain to help him compete in the inaugural Cybathlon competition in Zurich, Switzerland in October.

The Cybathlon is called the world’s first “cyborg Olympics.” The games will be hosted by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. SFU’s team is the only one from Canada participating in the Cybathlon. In total, there will be 80 teams from over 30 countries.

The team will have eight minutes to perform six tasks of everyday living using the prosthetic hand, including using kitchen items, completing puzzles, opening doors, and more.

The bionic hand, created in Engineering Science professor Carlo Menon’s lab, was originally intended to help stroke patients. Menon thought the technology could also be used by amputees. He explained that conventional prosthetics are not very intuitive.  

There is a high rejection rate among patients, and control systems have not significantly changed in over 50 years, he said.

The hand, a collaboration between SFU, Barber Prosthetics, and Steeper Prosthetics, is much more intuitive. It utilizes “a completely new approach to picking up signal and controlling an electric prosthesis from someone’s body,” said Barber Prosthetics head of Research and Development, Brittany Pousset.

She explained how “machine learning” might improve users’ motion availability. The hand itself is a Bebionic 3, on loan from Steeper Prosthetics of Leeds, England.

SFU’s contribution to the technology is the new control structure of the hand. Most systems used today were developed 50 years ago. These myoelectric devices are controlled by electromyogram signals that measure only two electric signals. SFU’s control structure uses force myography to detect intricate muscle movements along the surface of the remaining limb using a band of sensors around the forearm.

“With this new system, it feels like I’m opening and closing my hand,” said Letain. One of the greatest improvements of the device, according to Letain, is the ability to use the prosthetic limb above his head, something conventional systems fail to deliver. 

The SFU team, known as MASS Impact (Muscle Activity Sensor Strip), is part of the MENRVA Research Group. It’s made up of biomedical engineering and kinesiology research students and alumni. MASS Impact, Letain, and prosthetists from Barber Prosthetics have been working on this project since June of last year.

The hand takes a few minutes to “train” before use. Once activated, Letain cut bread, moved small objects, and even opened a jar using the prosthetic hand. The demonstration drew a large media audience including CTV, the Canadian Press, and many others.

Letain lost the lower part of his left arm in an accident while working on a CP Rail train on September 2, 1980. He said, “as an athlete… it’s the desire to win and the desire to do your best” that pushes him to persevere when things are challenging.       

“The SFU team is amazing, and they inspire me to want to be a part of it and want to do more,” said Letain. “I just see them as a bright, energetic group that is a true pleasure to be a part of.”