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SFU Researchers Lend a Bionic Hand to Amputee Athlete

Danny Letain will test his robotic prosthesis in global 'Cybathlon' event.

By Christopher Cheung 18 May 2016 | TheTyee.ca

Christopher Cheung is editorial assistant at The Tyee.

Danny Letain, a locomotive engineer, lost part of his arm in a workplace accident 35 years ago. He was knocked off a boxcar and dragged for 11 metres.

"I've always had the wish to be able to wiggle my fingers in that hand again," said Letain, who later became a Paralympics skier.

Thanks to researchers at Simon Fraser University, Letain is closer to his dream. They've been working with him since June 2015 to develop a bionic hand.

A prosthetic socket with pressure sensors tracks movements in Letain's remaining muscles. Computer algorithms then use that data to predict his intentions and move the electronic prosthetic hand to perform everyday tasks.

"The most exciting thing for me was feeling my left index finger and the little finger for the first time since my accident," Letain said.

It's an improvement over the straps and pincer-like hook he once had, and better than the more common robotic hands that require users to unnaturally move muscles they don't usually use to activate the hand. SFU's hand operates closer to a real hand.

Because a computer runs it, the hand also has the ability to improve with experience.

"The more data you give it, the more you will learn," said SFU engineering science alumnus Lukas-Karim Merhi, who is leading the team working with Letain.

The SFU team, called MASS Impact (Muscle Activity Sensor Strip), will be traveling to Zurich in October for the Cybathlon in Zurich, dubbed the "cyborg Olympics." MASS Impact is the only Canadian team competing.

Along with other amputees and individuals with disabilities, Letain will compete to use robotic technology to perform everyday tasks like slicing bread and opening jars.

While the Cybathlon showcases the most cutting edge technology for robotics, there's hope that the advances will become part of everyday life for those who need it.  [Tyee]

Read more: Science + Tech,

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