Customisable, updateable bionic hand helps Paralympian overcome uneasy relationship with prosthetics

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Australian swimmer Jessica Smith has had an uneasy relationship with prosthetics since a childhood accident, but her convictions are being challenged by a bionic hand that can be customised remotely to her needs 

The 2004 Athens Paralympian was born without a left hand.

Her parents were advised to fit a prosthesis to help with her development, but the device caused her to upset a boiling kettle when she was a toddler, causing burns to 15 per cent of her body.

“There’s always been an association between the fact this prosthetic aid didn’t actually help, it created the most traumatic event in my life,” she said.

But her curiosity was sparked when she was approached by Covvi, based in Leeds, northern England, to try its Nexus hand.

Jessica Smith applies make-up with her bionic hand
Jessica Smith has been using her new hand since April.(Reuters: Maja Smiejkowska)

Knowing it would be an emotional challenge, Ms Smith was fitted with the device in April at the age of 37.

“I think that I was ready to try something like this,” she said.

Bionic hands convert electrical impulses from the muscles in the upper arm into movement powered by motors in the hand, enabling a user to hold a glass, open a door or pick up an egg.

Simon Pollard, who founded Covvi five years ago, said he wanted to add bluetooth to the device to allow the company’s specialists to update it via an app.

View of exposed bionic hand
Although many hands allow users to select grip patterns via an app, Covvi says theirs  is the only one that can be individually updated by its engineers.(Reuters: Craig Brough)

“The fact we can change some of the things that the customer wants remotely is a really powerful thing and a first to market,” he said.

Some rival bionic hands can be app-controlled and there are already microprocessor-enabled hands on the market, says prosthetist Monique Van den Boom.

“With any microprocessor-enabled hand, the user is able to choose and change grip patterns,” she told the ABC.

But Mr Pollard said the ability to update a single device set the Nexus apart.

To do that, anonymised data is collected for every user, a task managed by partner NetApp.

Mr Pollard said Covvi had signed up 27 distributors globally, including in Australia, China and the United States, and he aimed to increase monthly production to 100.

Ms Van den Boom said that did offer a potential advantage for users.

“If someone was doing something very specific, and the grip patterns programmed didn’t quite allow them to grip something just right,  they could have something programmed specifically”, she added.

“There’s no perfect hand for everyone, each has to be tailored to each individual based on what their goals and functional needs are.”

‘I’m not trying to hide’

Jessica Smith, who is a speaker and children’s author, said Covvi was already creating new movements for her.

“I’ve had a few kids ask if I can do different hand gestures, some polite, some not so polite,” she said.

“I asked Covvi this morning, and I know that will be done in the next couple of hours.”

She said the tech was not just changing her life, it was changing the lives of her three children.

“They think it’s amazing and I’m like half-human, half-robot,” she said.

She said the “bionic” appearance of the hand was an attraction, given her pride in difference.

“I’m not trying to hide who I am,” she said.

“I’m adding and expanding on who I am by being able to access technology that’s never been available before.”


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