While it may seem to belong to the realm of science fiction, recent advances in the field of bionic engineering and bionics have provided the potential for augmenting the human body, repairing damage to limbs, and even replacing entire sections of the human body. This article will look at the field of bionic engineering and recent advances in bionic technologies.
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Bionics is a field of engineering that studies and develops mechanical systems that accurately mimic living organisms' function or parts. Biological structures, methods, and systems are applied to the design of engineering systems and modern technologies.
The inspiration for bionic engineering comes from the observation that evolutionary pressures force biological organisms to adapt and develop structures and processes which possess the optimal efficiency for survival.
Bionics is an interdisciplinary field that combines engineering and life sciences. Related interdisciplinary fields include biophysics, biomechanics, cybernetics, biocybernetics, information theory, biomedical engineering, and bioengineering.
A large overlap exists between these fields, making a sharp distinction difficult in that they require the same basic information but only differ in their application and use.
The field’s origins can be traced back to 1960, when around seven hundred physicists, engineers, biologists, biophysicists, psychologists, and psychiatrists attended a congress in Dayton, Ohio. Some notable historical examples of biomimetic engineering include Cat’s eye reflectors and Velcro.
Today, bionics and bionic engineering are pushing the boundaries of biology and engineering with the development of numerous biomimetic devices that are changing the future of areas such as physiotherapy, robotics, and medical science.
The bionic eye is a potential breakthrough technology that can enhance the vision of patients with eye conditions and partial and complete blindness.
Bioelectric implants can interpret visual data and transmit them to cells in the visual cortex, which can then be interpreted as visual data by the brain. There are two main challenges that exist with this technology: the complexity of mimicking retinal function and the preferences and constraints of consumers for miniature, implantable devices.
Despite the challenges with design and meeting consumer demands, the bionic vision market contains numerous prototypes and commercial products.
A notable example is the Argus II, developed by Second Sight Medical Products, which is a prosthetic device that consists of a microelectronic array implanted in the retina, a wearable camera, and an image processing unit.
Images captured by the camera, which can be integrated into wearable glasses, are transmitted to the processing unit, wirelessly transmitting signals to the implanted microelectronic array. These impulses stimulate the retinal cells by converting the signals into electrical impulses, acting as a vital link between the object and optic nerve, bypassing damaged photoreceptors.
Bionic devices can help people with partial or profound hearing loss. Cochlear implants, auditory midbrain implants, and auditory brainstem implants are the three main classes of this technology. An artificial link between the brain and the auditory source is created via a microelectronic array implanted in either the brain stem or the cochlea.
Compared to bionic devices that aid sight, auditory bionics is a more mature commercial technology field. The market has greater global adoption, a larger innovative ecosystem, and more products currently on the market.
Many companies produce auditory bionics products, including MED-EL, Advanced Bionics, Cochlear Limited, and several smaller, regional companies.
According to the WHO, around 15% of the world’s population live with some form of physical disability, whether it is hereditary or stemming from injuries and accidents.
Around 190 million people worldwide have a severe functional difficulty.
For around one hundred years, prosthetic limbs have been the norm for providing some degree of functional independence for patients. In recent decades, bionic limbs have started to replace prosthetic limbs, which, despite some advances in technology and lighter, advanced materials, suffer from limitations.
Bionic limbs are interfaced with the neuromuscular system of patients. This allows enhanced control of limbs that mimic biological functions. Grasping, bending, and flexing are controlled by the brain. Movement is controlled via an electronic pathway that bypasses the damaged peripheral nerves connecting the brain and the mechatronic limb.
The Bionic Engineering Lab at the University of Utah is one example of academic institutions developing next-generation bionic limbs.
Examples of research include the Ergo Knee Expo, a research exoskeleton designed to study human-robot interaction and ergonomics, an adaptive positioning ankle that uses a novel non-backdrivable actuation system, and an the OpenLegs Bionics CAD model, which is an open-source project that makes powered prostheses more accessible.
Perhaps the most notable bionic device under development at the Bionic Engineering Lab is an advanced bionic leg design. Instead of being controlled by signals from the brain, it utilizes artificial intelligence to control itself.
Additionally, MIT has announced the founding of an interdisciplinary bionics center with the aid of $24 million in funding from Lisa Yang, a philanthropist and former investment banker. The K. Lisa Yang Center for Bionics will focus on three bionic technologies during its first four years of operation: bionic limb reconstruction, digital nervous systems, and brain-controlled limb exoskeletons.
Bionic Design in Non-Medical Industries
Beyond medical devices, bionic engineering has vast potential for multiple industries, including human and animal-like biomimicking robots and military and construction exoskeletons.
A notable example is the bird wing-designed morphing wing, which can change its shape during flight in line with optimal mission performance. Other research is being conducted into the perception, decision-making, implementation, and interaction capabilities of autonomous robotic aircraft using bionics.
The field of bionic engineering is progressing rapidly, and the integration of technologies such as artificial intelligence and the development of advanced materials is pushing technology forward into the 20th century. The future of bionic engineering is exciting and has vast potential for medicine and industry.
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References and Further Reading
Roth, R.R (1983) The Foundation of Bionics [online] Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 26(2) | muse.jhu.edu. Available at: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/403622/summary
University of Utah (2021) Bionic Engineering Lab, [online] Available at: https://belab.mech.utah.edu/
Michalowski, J (2021) New bionics center established at MIT with $24 million gift [online] MIT News | news.mit.edu. Available at: https://news.mit.edu/2021/new-bionics-center-established-mit-24-million-gift-0923
Frost & Sullivan (2017) Bionics: A Step into the Future [online] Alliance of Advanced BioMedical Engineering | aabme.asme.org. Available at: https://aabme.asme.org/posts/bionics-a-step-into-the-future
The SMC Society (2022) Autonomous Bionic Robotic Aircrafts [online] ieesmc.org. Available at: https://ieeesmc.org/technical-activities/systems-science-and-engineering/autonomous-bionic-robotic-aircraft