MARK McARDLE I TECH TALK
Science behind artificial limbs has made amazing progress.
THE MARKET for health-related technologies is exploding, and new devices are being invented at an impressive rate.
Every year at the Consumer Electronics Show dozens of new companies appear with gadgets and devices aimed at helping you live a healthier life. The spectrum of technologies spans from simple devices to measure your activity to surgical technologies and intelligent prosthetics.
One name familiar to people who follow innovation closely is Dean Kamen. He is responsible for inventing many interesting devices, including the famous Segway Human Transporter seen carrying mall cops everywhere.
For eight years, Kamen has been working on the DEKA prosthetic arm. Funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, it focuses on improving the lives of amputees. It has just been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Although the prosthetic arm is officially called the DEKA Arm, its creators have nicknamed it the “Luke arm” (after Luke Skywalker). It is the first arm approved by the Food and Drug Administration that can move multiple joints at once by receiving commands from electrodes on the user’s arm.
The next step for this device is manufacturing and commercialization. In a test, 36 participants from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs used the arm to perform everyday tasks like feeding themselves, cooking and combing their hair. According to the study, 90 per cent of the participants were able to perform complex tasks.
DEKA received $40 million in funding from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to develop this arm as part of its Revolutionizing Prosthetics program. The American government’s goal was to fund research leading to significant innovations in prosthetics, and it would appear investing in Dean Kamen has paid off.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, a company in the United Kingdom has established a leadership position in the advanced prosthetics market. It is aptly named Touch Bionics.
The company was formed by researchers at the Princess Margaret Rose Hospital in Edinburgh in 1963. These researchers were working on prosthetic solutions for children affected by the drug Thalidomide.
Their flagship product, the i-limb ultra revolution prosthetic hand looks remarkably like a human hand. It’s proportioned
correctly and has joints and knuckles that function similarly to a human hand. It also features a rotating thumb and a rotatable wrist. Each individual digit is fully independent of the others. The modelling of human movement has been used to design the control software that makes the i-limb much more natural looking. They claim it is the most dexterous hand ever made, and it would appear that’s not an exaggeration. The hand can be controlled by using muscle signals, and this approach requires the user to train. Specific muscle movements, called triggers, can be programmed to move the prosthetic into specific grips or positions. Touch Bionics has also invented an alternative method of controlling the prosthetic. It utilizes an iPod, iPhone or iPad as well as Android devices. Using an app that connects to the i-limb over Bluetooth, the user can move the hand into one of 24 pre-programmed grips. Things like the shape of your hand when gripping a mouse or shaking someone’s hand are examples of the menu available. The app, called biosim, is also used to train and collect lots of information that can help tune the prosthetic.
Touch Bionics has cleverly created a way to automatically trigger a grip by placing something called a “Grip Chip” on a device like a keyboard. When the hand comes close to the keyboard, it repositions the grip to enable easy typing.
The final touch is the covering. In 2008, Touch Bionics acquired an American company called Livingskin to provide a lifelike covering for their products. The i-limb skin natural cover is designed to look and feel like natural human skin. There are 10 colour options. The synthetic skin cover looks pretty futuristic. It reminds me of the robots from the Will Smith movie I, Robot.
Those of us with all of our limbs take for granted our ability to effortlessly perform countless tasks every day. Through birth defects, accidents, disease and war, lots of people would benefit from improved dexterity. The simple prosthetics of yesterday are giving way to some incredible new devices that are bringing together all kinds of advanced technologies.
It’s an amazing area of research, and at first glance may seem like sci-fi. But this technology isn’t fantasy. It’s real. For more information, check out: www.dekaresearch.com www.touchbionics.com