Researchers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have moved one step closer towards building a prosthetic hand that can actually feel.
Scientists have made tremendous breakthroughs in recent years in the development of prosthetics. Those who were born without arms, legs, feet or hands, or lost them in accidents or combat, now have the promise of a new life.
Undoubtedly, 3-D printing has added a whole new layer to the conversation, now that scientists are able to produce actual limbs.
Capt Kim Fawcett, a Royal Canadian Air Force officer who lost her leg in an accident in 2006. Photo: Canadian Army
Some amputees, such as Captain Kim Fawcett, a Canadian Armed Forces officer who lost her right leg in a devastating accident in 2006 that also claimed the life of her infant son, have even gone on to compete in the global parasports such as swimming, sitting volleyball, athletics and Paratriathlon.
I’m always thinking of ways that you can achieve what people think is the impossible.
Like Capt Fawcett, US military researchers at DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) are also pushing the envelope.
The agency has awarded contracts to eight firms to develop prosthetic hands with a sense of touch as part of Phase 1 of its Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces (HAPTIX) program.
Imagine being able to “feel” again, or better, for the very first time?
The science behind the HAPTIX program, which aims to “help restore full and natural functionality to wounded service members and veterans,” could obviously transform the lives of civilian amputees as well.
DARPA’s Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces (HAPTIX) program aims to develop fully implantable, modular and reconfigurable neural-interface systems that would enable intuitive, dexterous control of advanced upper-limb prosthetic devices.
Perhaps that’s why President Barrack Obama referred to the program in his 2015 State of the Union Address.
The ultimate goal for HAPTIX is to create a device that is safe, effective and reliable enough for use in everyday activities,” said Doug Weber, DARPA program manager. “DARPA is partnering with scientists at the Food and Drug Administration to help develop standards for verifying safety and quantifying benefits of this new class of advanced technologies. We hope to streamline the process of validating technologies that can help our military Service members and veterans who have been injured while serving our country."
DARPA is assessing several different technical approaches in Phase 1. Those that prove successful would continue into Phase 2, which would integrate select technology components into a complete HAPTIX test system.
The agency plans to initiate take-home trials of a complete, FDA-approved HAPTIX prosthesis system within four years. Photo: DARPA
Play on words
The name HAPTIX is actually a play on the word haptics, which refers to the sense of touch. The program plans to adapt one of the prosthetic limb systems that was developed recently under DARPA’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics program.
These interfaces would build on advanced "neural-interface" technologies that are currently being developed through DARPA’s Reliable Neural-Interface Technology (RE-NET) program. Sounds like a mouthful to be sure, but it's obviously breaking new ground.
Building on existing digital health technologies
Where appropriate, HAPTIX teams intend to leverage commercially available, off-the-shelf technologies such as intramuscular electrodes and lead technologies that were developed initially for cardiac pacemakers and are now used in several modern implantable medical devices.
The program also plans to test advanced microelectrode array and nerve cuff electrode technologies that have been developed over the past two decades with support from the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Veterans Affairs and DARPA.
DARPA is working with teams led by the following institutions:
- Case Western Reserve University
- Cleveland Clinic
- Draper Laboratory
- Nerves Incorporated
- Ripple LLC
- University of Pittsburgh
- University of Utah
- University of Florida
It was quite amazing, because suddenly I was able to feel something I hadn’t been feeling for nine years, said Dennis Aabo Sørensen, in a video provided by the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne, Switzerland. I could feel round things and hard things and soft things. The feedback was totally new to me. Suddenly, when I was doing the movements, I could feel what I was doing, instead of looking at what I was doing.The feedback was totally new to me. Suddenly, when I was doing the movements, I could feel what I was doing, instead of looking at what I was doing.