How modular bionic upgrades will keep your body cutting edge


Spearheaded by concepts from tech giants like Google with the sadly-defunct Project Ara, modular tech is an exciting area that has been garnering a lot of interest in recent times. It envisions a future where, instead of purchasing a new device every year or so, you simply customise it component by component to keep it up-to-date.

Put it this way. When a certain part of your phone breaks, or starts to be superseded by more powerful options, you’d currently either get it repaired or discard the whole thing completely. If the device were module-based, you could simply purchase a replacement part and pop it in place. That’s all you’d need to do.

And yet many in the industry believe modular tech is fanciful and doesn’t have a future. They don’t see an issue in bringing out new devices on a regular basis and having consumers purchase them. Compounded by the complexities of production, this belief has led to the eventual failure of projects like Google’s Ara.

But does this spell the end of the area overall? Not at all. Modular innovation is making waves in many other areas, none more so than in the field of health and human biology. 

With superior healthcare and nutrition pushing up the average life expectancy, our bodies increasingly have to last years. Each body has so many components that can easily fail. But modular bionics, 3D-printed organs and in-body chips have the potential to keep us cutting-edge and give us superhuman abilities forever. 

Exploiting robotics

Many organisations and technologists are already experimenting with humanoid and bionic innovation to make life easier for humans. Sethu Vijayakumar, a professor of robotics at Edinburgh University and director of the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics, has been conducting extensive work into the design and control of anthropomorphic or human-like robotic systems, with a strong emphasis on exploiting machine learning.

Working with Touch Bionics, he helped to create a prosthetic hand that can reduce fatigue and workload for humans. As well as this, he’s also working with NASA to develop a humanoid robot for future Mars missions. 

He tells Techradar: “We have been exploiting our expertise in humanoids for building intelligent bionic assist systems. In collaboration with Touch Bionics, we are developing smart upper limb prosthetics aimed at reducing user fatigue and workload through grasp pre-shaping. 

“Our work on gait analysis and bipedal locomotion has opened new ways of controlling exoskeleton devices so that stroke patients and active lower limb orthoses users can get appropriate and personalised assistance routines during assisted rehabilitation sessions.”

Vijayakumar’s work may eventually extend beyond aiding those with mobility issues.

“This technology can, of course, be used by healthy individuals for human augmentation,” he adds.

“In fact, a potential application we are looking at includes more compact exercise machines for astronauts on the ISS and long term missions, and a project with Costain (involved with London Cross Rail delivery) on cognitive load reducing use of kinesthetically operated construction and tunnel machinery.”

3D-printing advancements

3D printing also has the potential to make our bodies cutting-edge. While 3D printers haven’t taken over the world just yet, they’re being used to create long-lasting prosthetics for people who have lost limbs. Robotics company Open Bionics is leading the charge here. It’s developing low-cost, open-source bionic hands.

The company’s mission is to change the way robotic prosthetics are made by capitalising on the possibilities of 3D printing. It can create a lightweight, durable bionic hand within 5 days. However, depending on the circumstance, it can sometimes speed this process up to an even more impressive 48 hours.