The Bionic Body: No Longer a Fantasy

The next generation of human augmentation technologies is in the works

19 December 2016

Science-fiction movies such as RoboCop have introduced characters that are part human, part machine. Their intelligent prosthetics and sophisticated suits of armor seem like part of some distant future. But such high-tech helpers are expected to debut in the next few years thanks in part to the work of IEEE members.

Human augmentation will first help people regain lost abilities, but eventually the applications will assist able-bodied people, enhancing their productivity, says IEEE Senior Member Yu Yuan, chair of the IEEE Digital Senses Initiative. The group is working with academia and industry to remove barriers to the development and widespread adoption of augmented reality, virtual reality, and human augmentation. The DSI, which fosters collaborations, helps develop standards, and organizes events, was launched last year by the IEEE Future Directions Committee, the organization’s R&D arm.

IEEE members are working to make prosthetic hands and knees that are more humanlike, as well as on a lighter, more comfortable exoskeleton.


IEEE Senior Member Christian Cipriani has developed a myoelectrically controlled robotic hand that relies on sensors that detect electromyography (EMG) signals generated by the wearer’s muscle and nerve activity. The microcontroller-based system then translates the activity into information for its electric motors to control the artificial hand’s movements.

Cipriani is an associate professor of bioengineering at the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies BioRobotics Institute, in Pisa, Italy. The robotic hand he has developed also provides sensory feedback from discrete vibrotactile bursts on the forearm. The vibrations are relayed to the brain, where they help improve motor control. For example, each time the wearer touches and releases an object, she receives a small vibration. If she reaches for a cup to take a drink, she’ll feel a vibration on her forearm as her hand touches the cup. That tells the brain the cup needs to be lifted.

The article “Non-Invasive, Temporally Discrete Feedback of Object Contact and Release Improves Grasp Control of Closed-loop Myoelectric Transradial Prostheses,” cowritten by Cipriani, was published in the November 2015 issue of the IEEE Transactions on Neural Systems and Rehabilitation Engineering.

IEEE Member Levi Hargrove is using electrodes on the skin to collect leg-muscle EMG signals, which are then applied to control a prosthetic leg. Hargrove is director of the Neural Engineering for Prosthetics and Orthotics Laboratory at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. The EMG signals are combined with signals from sensors on the prosthesis itself in a control system that automatically affects how the leg moves based on what the patient is doing, such as standing up or walking up a slope. Commonly, prostheses require a remote or exaggerated movement to signal a change in a limb’s activity.

Hargrove’s research was published in “New Prostheses and Orthoses Step Up Their Game” in the May/June edition of IEEE Pulse.


IEEE Member Conor Walsh is working on a soft, lightweight exosuit that could help a wearer carry heavy loads and walk with greater stability. For soldiers and hikers, the suit could reduce fatigue and prevent injury. It also could help stroke patients or those with multiple sclerosis regain mobility.

Walsh is an associate professor at Harvard’s John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. He also teaches at the university’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering.

The exosuit is composed of a waist belt, two thigh pieces, and a strap around each calf. Pulleys, made from bicycle brake cables, are attached to the straps; the cables’ other ends are fitted to a motorized power pack worn on the person’s back. When the wearer starts to lift his foot to take a step, the power pack pulls the cables, helping the wearer lift his leg. Then, as his foot swings forward, another cable, attached to the shoe’s toe cap, tightens to help raise the toe so that it does not drag on the ground as the wearer swings his leg forward.

Walsh received a Rolex Award for his exosuit. The award, which comes with a US $100,000 prize, is given by the luxury watchmaker to “exceptional people carrying out new and ongoing projects to improve life on the planet.”

The Harvard engineering school recently entered into a collaboration with the medical device company ReWalk Robotics of Marlborough, Mass., to help speed the exosuit’s development.

Multi-Joint Soft Exosuit for Gait Assistance,” cowritten by Walsh, was published in the proceedings of the 2015 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation.

This article is part of our December 2016 special issue on digital senses.

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