Many of us take for granted the ability to drive, hold a simple glass, or play cards with friends. But for someone who has lost a hand, these seemingly simple tasks can be extremely difficult. Now, these individuals can regain full mobility thanks to Hannes, a new generation polyarticulate prosthetic hand and product of a collaboration between Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia of Genoa (IIT) and Inail.
“This is the work of three intense years,” says Lorenzo De Michieli, director of the Rehab Technology Iit-Inail Lab, where the robotic hand was designed and manufactured. “This is a revolution in engineering made possible by a team of only five people, working round-the-clock, at a total cost of approximately 5 million euros.”
Co-financed both by Inail and the Budrio prosthesis center, the project has seamlessly blended technology and engineering with medical and physiotherapeutic factors, without compromising the experience of the client. The hand was initially developed and tested on a man who, due to a work accident at age 16, lost the right arm. Today, over fifty years later, he has regained full use of his new, robotic right arm and hand. “Our prosthesis costs between 10,000-12,000 euros. The Italian national health insurance will cover up to 6,000 euro, for an end cost to the client of 4,000-6,000 euro. Our prosthesis is therefore cheaper than others currently on the market. Not only that, but Hannes provides greater capacity to its user, making it an overall more effective prosthesis. It is mostly targeted at people who were injured at work; however, this product touches on an even bigger issue – that of mobility,” explains De Michieli. In an aging society with a low birth rate, technology and the use of robots in healthcare and rehabilitation is growing in importance as elderly patients increasingly need to be as autonomous as possible.
Hannes provides 90% of the functionality lost by those who were amputated. Its distinguishing characteristics are delicacy of real human touch and the ability to adapt to the shape of the object it grabs. Its precise movements are comparable to those of a real hand. It is therefore not perceived as a foreign element. The fingers, equipped with phalanges, bend with a movement which mimics that of real fingers. The thumb can take 3 distinct positions, replicating different types of grip for small, large or heavy objects. The mechanism that causes the fingers to move is equipped with a differential that makes the hand extremely versatile. The wrist moves either in flexed extension and prone supination, even able to perform rotary movements when necessary. Its wide array of movements depends on a control system that exploits the muscular contraction of the residual limb, ultimately stemming from a brain command. Special sensors in the prosthesis “read” the brain’s signals through the forearm’s muscular reaction and transmit the signal to an electronic component in the hand, activating the appropriate movement. The device is available in sizes for men and women, and includes protective gloves adapted to men and women.
Hannes is the result of the work of five engineers, all aged between 27 and 35 years old. Among them, Niccolò Boccardo, 28, a Genoese, biomedical engineer specialized in robotics and mechatronics, spent time at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) in Geneva before returning to Genoa to work at the IIT. “Switching from a robotic hand dedicated to research to a usable, functional is not easy. We needed to guarantee a certain number of movements – even a combination of those movements – as well as functionality and performance. It’s like building a washing machine that needs to work for various different washing cycle,” says Boccardo. “This requires a humanoid mechanism, capable of handling about half a million moves a day. One of our toughest days here was when, after a certain number of cycles, the system broke due to worn out wires. We then realized we needed more suitable wires. Ultimately, we found our answer through a woman who had worked in a fishmonger for 80 years. It was a polyethylene fiber, which is extremely resistant. In that moment, we found the solution,” says Boccardo.