New project will build first sensory finger
At the dawn of the 21st Century, the most significant advances in the sciences are to be expected from crossing the boundaries ('converging') between previously separated scientific and engineering disciplines, such as .nano- and bio-technology, information and cognitive science.
This approach has the potential to offer new solutions to improve the health and quality of life of humans suffering from such disabilities as missing limbs, for example.
One such project is NanoBioTact, due to start soon. Funded by the EU to the tune of €3 million, the multi-disciplinary group from academia and industry will look at developing a 'biomimetic finger' to bring closer the prospect of prosthetic hands that could provide the user with sensory feedback.
Working at the frontiers of knowledge in nanotechnology, neurology, robotics and materials science, the project partners will aim to design an articulated artificial finger that could be connected directly to the central nervous system to give the user a sense of touch.
The coordinator of NanoBioTact, Mike Adams of Birmingham University, said the project aims to stand on the shoulders of previous research on integrating signals from synthetic sensors with the nervous system.
'There are quite significant developments in attaching prosthetic limbs to the body and in connecting up this sort of information directly to nerve endings,' he said. 'But current prostheses are equipped with relatively crude force transducers, derived from robotics; they're designed to help you pick up a polystyrene coffee cup without spilling it. What they're not designed for is tactile sensing.' Signal processing will be the project's biggest challenge.
The team will aim to develop a range of nanoscale Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems (MEMS)-type sensors that will mimic the spatial resolution, sensitivity and dynamics of human tactile neural sensors.
To achieve this will require the scientific understanding of the mechanoreceptors found in humans and the neural coding of the many thousands of actions discharged during a tactile experience.
The project's biomimetic tactile sensors will have many applications, including prosthetic limbs with neural interfaced sensing and control, robotics with controlled grip and virtual reality training environments.
Moreover, the improved understanding of the human tactile system will assist in the treatment of patients with impaired neurological functions.
The project partners aim to deliver the biomimetic finger by the end of the three-year project.
Subject Index: Coordination, Cooperation; Life Sciences; Scientific Research