German scientists unveil bionic hand with bundled smart wires

A research team at Saarland University designed and 3-D printed a plastic hand with bundles of “smart” wires that mimic human muscles, Reuters reports.  The wires are about the width of a human hair and can return to their original shape after being activated.  An electrical charge runs through the “shape memory” wires, causing them to tense and contract.  When the charge is turned off, the wires cool down and go back to their original, relaxed state.

Bundling the wires is a key part of the prosthetic, Filomena Simone, a PhD student who co-developed the prototype, told Reuters.  By grouping the wires together, there’s more surface area for the electricity to move through, allowing for more rapid contractions and movement extensions, Simone said.  And a single semiconductor chip controls the shape of the wires, she added, forgoing the need for outside sensors which can be bulky and imprecise.

“We can monitor the position of the finger without adding any other sensor; only exploiting this embedded feature of the wire,” Simone said, as quoted by Reuters.  “This helps us to always preserve a very lightweight structure.  This is a big deal because normally prostheses until now are very heavy.”  Researchers have yet to test their findings on humans, but have already tried out the technology on a model of a bat.  Scientists used two strands of the shape memory wires to recreate the movement of a bat beating its wings.  Eventually, the technology could be applied to the human neurosystem, sensing nerves and activating muscles to coordinate movement in prostheses, Saarland University Professor Stefan Seelecke told the news outlet.

Meanwhile, med tech companies are looking to cash in on bionic technology with new devices.  ReWalk Robotics is hard at work on its robotic exoskeleton system, pushing for increased reimbursement for its product.  Bionic eye maker Second Sight Medical ($EYES) stumbled a bit after launching an IPO last year.  However, in July 2015 the company posted a 7% gain in early trading after releasing positive three-year data for its visual prosthetic.

REFERENCE:  Fierce Medical Devices; 23 JUL 2015; Emily Wasserman