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UK technology sets a global standard

22 July 2008

The lives of people who use prosthetic hands are set to change for the better after a University of Plymouth spin-off company teamed up with a Scottish firm to create the world's most sophisticated upper limb prosthesis.

Advanced Control Research Ltd joined forces with Touch Bionics Ltd to develop the i-Limb Hand, the first commercially-available bionic hand. The hand works by the user's muscles sending signals from their arm to the control system which activates the hand. These signals affect the number of actions, the speed of movement and strength of grip. The hand also has multi-articulating finger technology meaning that all of its fingers can move separately - unlike other artificial hands where if one finger moves, the rest must too.

The electronic hardware and software that provide control of the movements of the individual fingers and independently moving thumb is the outcome of design and development by Advanced Control Research Ltd, based in Plymouth, and this is manufactured, under a non-exclusive licence, by Touch Bionics.

The i-Limb Hand has just been awarded the prestigious Royal Academy of Engineering's MacRobert Award 2008, clinching a £50,000 cash prize to be spent on further development. The MacRobert Award recognises the successful development of innovative ideas in engineering. It seeks to demonstrate the importance of engineering and the role of engineers and scientists in contributing to national prosperity and international prestige.

The i-Limb Hand is currently being exhibited in the Science Museum in London.

Working with Touch Bionics provided the ideal vehicle for ACR's state-of-the-art control system and Professor Roland Burns, managing director of ACR, said that the hand was already generating sales in America and in Europe.

"By combining the i-Limb Hand with ACR's powerful digital signal processing technology I can see that Britain could become a global player in the prosthetic industry, which currently is dominated by overseas companies," he said. "The control system has been developed using leading-edge advanced electronics and this enables the i-Limb Hand to open, close and wrap around objects. However, successful engineering tests held recently in Scotland have opened the way to use Advanced Control Research Ltd's next product, a revolutionary control system, codenamed ACR2, which provides the user with twice as many actions."

Professor Burns is now already working on even more advanced control systems to create increasingly sophisticated prosthetics. ACR's third product, ACR3, will provide the user with an even greater range of actions than ACR2 by employing advanced software techniques to process the information collected. This means the user could have a suite of actions for in the office and, say, a second suite of actions for in the kitchen and home, or outdoors.

Funding has been crucial to underpin all of the company's research and development. Advanced Control Research Ltd were successful in receiving SMART awards from the then Department of Trade and Industry and further assistance from NESTA the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

"We live in very exciting times and are delighted to be able to offer the world this great UK technology," added Professor Burns.

Vice-Chancellor of the University of Plymouth, Professor Wendy Purcell, said: "The success of ACR is a shining example of what can happen when high-level academic expertise is developed in a commercial environment. ACR is poised to become a world leader in the field of prosthetics and, in doing so, will improve the lives of the people who use its products. As the enterprise university, the University of Plymouth is committed to maximising opportunities for knowledge transfer so that the innovation of our academic staff can be developed to benefit both the local and the national economy."


Notes to editors

ACR was formed by University of Plymouth academics Professor Roland Burns and Peter Nurse in 1998. It is based in Plympton, in Plymouth.

Photography is available. For images, telephone the University of Plymouth press office on 01752 588003.

For more information about ACR please telephone Professor Roland Burns on 01752 337501.