Thousands of war veterans have returned home from the wars in the Middle East. Unfortunately, a large number of them have returned home missing limbs due to IEDs (improvised explosive devices). Often adapting to life with a missing limb is challenging to say the least. Lower replacement prosthetics are advanced – in the 21st century as Dean Kamen puts it. Upper prosthetics on the other hand, are decades behind and offer little articulation.
DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency finally decided to address this growing issue. In 2005, Dean Kamen, the famed inventor of the Segway, won $18 million in funding to produce a bionic limb. What they’ve conceived is both mind blowing and exciting.
Video and more info after the ‘leap’
Called the Luke Arm, named after Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars films (he lost his hand in Empire Strikes Back), is the first bionic upper limb, or arm to offer 18 degrees of freedom. Previous prosthetics only offered a mere 3 degrees of freedom. The arm can be assembled in 4 modular parts to fit all types of amputees (think forearm or hand only). It’s driven by 12 microprocessors and weighs no more then 8lbs. Powered by an onboard lithium ion battery, the Luke Arm can be controlled in a number of ways. The amputee can have the device hard wired into their muscle or nerves, or opt for a foot module. A pad is placed in the user’s shoe, and based on pressure and toe articulation the amputee can control the arm. Obviously this isn’t the ideal choice for those without legs, but a good alternative.
If you’ve ever seen “The Million Dollar Man” then you’re probably pondering the military applications. The current state of the Luke Arm seems to be for practical use only – so no bone crushing power just yet. But, as with a human arm and hand, it’s easy to crush lightweight objects. To avoid the embarrassment of an exploding soda can or paper cup, Kamen’s team installed a tactile feedback sensor in the hand of the Luke Arm. As the individual grips harder a vibration is felt and grows increasingly stronger as their grip tightens
Watching the linked video is amazing. The man displaying the Luke Arm has been an amputee for 26 years. He is able to pick up objects as small as a marble and softly place it on a stacked paper cup. In the video he remarks ‘how he hasn’t been able to do these things in 26 years’ and ‘that his wife will have plenty for him to do’ as soon as he gets one of these.
Currently Deka, Dean Kamen’s research team, is looking for a partner to go into clinical studies. They hope to keep the Luke Arm’s cost to under $100,000.