The U.S. FDA just approved a DARPA-developed prosthetic limb capable of giving unparalleled control to amputees in performing complex tasks, very close to the degree of dexterity achieved by real limbs.
While cybernetic organisms are still in the realm of science fiction, the technology behind it is not far fetched, as this DEKA-made, DARPA-sponsored electromechanical limb shows.
The robotic arm is controlled by electrical signals from muscles near the attachment area of amputees:
- Middle arm
- Lower arm
An onboard computer translates the signals into movement.
“They don’t need to control the shoulder, the elbow and the hand; it’s all able to work together in one motion,”
Matt Albuquerque, president of Next Step Bionics & Prosthetics, which co-developed the prosthetic with DEKA, told Bloomberg recently.
Since its modular, the device can be fitted exactly to specifications. The prosthetic weighs and looks like a human arm, but it is the dexterity and complexity of movements it allows that make it stand out from existing prostheses.
It allows the wearer to execute powered shoulder movements and a wider range of wrist motion, which is important in grasping smaller objects, and makes the device much more useful than traditional artificial arms and hands.
Dubbed “Luke” from the Star Wars character Luke Skywalker, the prosthetic allows the wearer to achieve “near natural upper-arm extremity control” including the ability to drink from a cup of water, or pick up a grape or credit card.
According to MIT Technology Review, citing a study published in Prosthetics and Orthotics International, the device allowed 36 participants to perform daily activities such as using keys and locks, and preparing and eating food - movements they have not been successful at when they tried other kinds of artificial limbs.
It also features a sensory feedback mechanism, allowing the wearer to gauge grip strength by vibrating the skin.
“The research down the road is when something is implanted in the muscle, and a signal is wirelessly transferred to the arm,”
In a press release declaring its approval of the DEKA device, the FDA said it is allowing the
“marketing of first prosthetic arm that translates signals from person’s muscles to perform complex tasks.”
The company, which holds all patents used in the device, is seeking partners to mass-manufacture it.
DEKA was founded by renowned inventor Dean Kamen, the man behind Segway, among other things. The New Hampshire-based company secured $40 million from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to develop the prosthetic.
“Think about our military personnel, who can be great beneficiaries of these devices: before DARPA made an investment in this area the best we could give back to them was metal hooks,”
Justin Sanchez, a program manager in the agency’s new Biological Technologies office, said in a phone interview with Bloomberg.
“This is a landmark moment for DARPA as an agency.”