Controlling a Hand Exoskeleton With Your Mind

Researchers have developed a hand exoskeleton that can be controlled solely by thoughts and eye movements, according to a report published yesterday in the inaugural issue of Science Robotics. Six quadriplegic individuals tested the device in everyday situations; they successfully picked up coffee cups, ate donuts, squeezed sponges, and signed documents, the researchers reported.

The fact that the system functions outside the laboratory, in busy, unsupervised environments, is a dramatic improvement upon previous brain-controlled robotic limbs, says Surjo Soekadar, a neuroscientist and physician at the University Hospital of Tübingen in Tübingen, Germany. Soekadar led the study.

The system works by translating the brain’s electrical activity into actions in the robotic hand. The user, wearing a mesh cap with five electrodes, thinks about grasping an object. This produces a pattern of brain activity detected by electroencephalography, or EEG. An algorithm on a tablet computer identifies these specific brain activity patterns and translates them into control signals. A control box and set of actuators then commands the hand exoskeleton to carry out the set of coordinated movements that add up to the grasping motion.

The whole process—from intention to grasp—takes just over a second, says Soekadar. That’s probably not fast enough to catch a ball, but it’s suitable for picking up a cup or turning a knob. The hand exoskeleton itself was developed by Nicola Vitiello and Maria Chiara Carrozza at The BioRobotics Institute of the Scuola Superiore Sant’Anna in Pisa,…[Read more]