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When bionic technology offers a helping hand

Bionic prosthetics have evolved over the years. Can Mumbai-based startup Robo Bionics make its mark with an easy-to-use and affordable solution?

The Grippy robotic hand, which weighs 650g, helps users perform some common daily tasks. (Courtesy: Robo Bionics)

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If you delve into history books, you will find a reference to the Roman general Marcus Sergius, who is considered the first documented wearer of a prosthetic arm. While artificial limbs have been used since ancient times, bionic limbs—which use different pieces of technology and can be integrated with parts of the human body—are a recent invention.

In the 1990s, Robert Campbell Aird, who had lost his right arm to cancer, was fitted with the world’s first bionic arm. Developed by the prosthetics R&D team at Edinburgh’s Princess Margaret Rose Orthopaedic Hospital, it had a powered shoulder, an elbow, a wrist, and fingers. It was controlled by electronic micro-sensors and weighed 1.8kg. A BBC report from August 1998 described it as the world’s first fully mobile “bionic” arm.

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Since then, startups and researchers have attempted to not only make such prosthetics affordable but also more advanced—everything from an inflatable robotic hand to a mind-controlled arm prostheses. Now Mumbai-based startup Robo Bionics hopes to make a mark with its semi-bionic artificial hand “Grippy”, launched here a year ago.

This battery-powered, artificial robotic hand, 3D-printed and processed through additive manufacturing techniques, offers a sense of touch, feel, and multi-grip control for people who are missing an arm from birth or have lost one to amputation. Weighing just 650g with the socket, it enables basic daily tasks: opening and closing a bottle cap, holding a door handle, carrying a bag, even driving a car with both hands.

Affordable, compared to imported devices, and easy to maintain—the startup says most parts are available locally and can even be replaced at a watch repair shop—can Grippy be a game changer in this segment?

So far, Robo Bionics has commercially sold and fitted around 15 units. Another 20 units are being worked on. Currently, a Grippy device for a below-elbow amputation costs 2.25-2.5 lakh, based on the complexity of the socket fabrication. The startup is partnering with limb-fitting centres and NGOs across major cities to make the device accessible. “We are now also starting to tie up and spread awareness in hospitals,” says Llewellyn D’sa, 30, co-founder and CEO of Robo Bionics, during a video interview.

This battery-powered, artificial robotic hand offers a sense of touch, feel, and multi-grip control for people who are missing an arm from birth or have lost one to amputation.
This battery-powered, artificial robotic hand offers a sense of touch, feel, and multi-grip control for people who are missing an arm from birth or have lost one to amputation. (Robo Bionics)

The market potential could be huge – according to various estimates, India has more than half a million amputees. Around half a dozen startups are already in the field: These include the Bengaluru-based Social Hardware, which works with non-profits to provide low-cost assistive devices; Pune, Maharashtra-based DeeDee Labs, which has a range of prosthetic devices; and Hyderabad startup Makers Hive.  

D’sa believes they are different. For, while other startups are focusing on technical developments—like integrating smart technology and smartphone connectivity, etc.—Robo Bionics wanted to focus more on the “needs for a user”. “That helped us keep costs down and provide the necessary functionality,” D’sa adds. The startup is experimenting with a powered elbow joint and wrist connector to expand the device’s capabilities.

The device has taken years to develop. “In 2014, I joined IIT (Indian Institute of Technology), Patna for my master’s programme (in mechanical engineering), where I met my batchmate Jayant Vyas, who was missing a hand. In the same batch, we had another student who was quadriplegic and had a powered wheelchair. I wondered why one person had help while the other didn’t,” says D’sa.

Vyas had been missing a hand from birth. He had tried a few devices earlier, including a cosmetic hand and a body-powered device, but they didn’t work. One offered no functionalities, the other was too heavy. Bionic or myoelectric devices—externally powered prostheses—were either too expensive or offered little functionality. Imported devices would cost 24-25 lakh. “Keeping a myoelectric hand in mind, I started devising a possible solution with five-finger functionality. I found out during my research that a lack of ‘sense of touch’ or feedback was a problem in many bionic hands. Because of this, and the steep learning curve required in using these traditional devices, many users were rejecting such devices. These were the two problems I wanted to solve,” D’sa explains.

Llewellyn D’sa (second from left) and the Robo Bionics team. Working on early prototypes, the team developed its own MMG, or mechanomyogram, sensors.
Llewellyn D’sa (second from left) and the Robo Bionics team. Working on early prototypes, the team developed its own MMG, or mechanomyogram, sensors. (Robo Bionics)

Despite his limited experience in coding and electronics design, he set out to build a prototype, which was finished by 2016. It was too big. He then joined hands with fellow batchmate Kumari Priyanka and another junior college friend, Anil Nair. Working on early prototypes, the team developed its own MMG, or mechanomyogram, sensors. These were an upgrade on EMG, or electromyography, sensors, used as a control signal for prosthetic devices. “EMG sensors work well in normal room conditions. But when you are out in the field, if it’s too hot and you are sweating, it interferes with the sensors’ functions and leads to some false triggers,” says D’sa.

Globally, the technology used in bionic prosthetic devices—especially for upper- limb amputation—has been changing rapidly, influenced not only by design but affordability. Last year, researchers at the US’ Massachusetts Institute of Technology and China’s Shanghai Jiao Tong University designed a soft, lightweight and potentially low-cost neuroprosthetic hand that allowed users to perform a host of daily activities—from shaking hands to petting a cat. This smart hand not only had a tactile feedback mechanism but was also durable.

The team at Robo Bionics took inspiration from the vibration patterns in mobile phones to integrate haptic feedback in Grippy. There are multiple vibration patterns the device sends to a user on the surface of their skin, to understand if the hand is opening or closing, and the type of object they are holding. The hand can be charged fully in around two hours and can function for 8-10 hours on a full charge.

Every prototype was tested with 8-10 people. “After multiple trials and six-seven prototypes, we had the MVP version of Grippy in 2018. It looked and functioned like a hand but needed some more finishing touches before it could be used as a functional prosthetic device,” says D’sa. The next step was to complete third-party lab tests and get the necessary regulatory approvals for the medical device. The covid-19 pandemic delayed plans by six-eight months. The product was finally launched in January 2021.

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