In the 1970s Steve Austin, portrayed by Lee Majors in The Six Million Dollar Man, underwent surgery after a tragic accident to replace his right arm, both legs and left eye with “bionic” implants meant to enhance his strength, speed and vision. He could run at speeds of 60 miles per hour, his eye had a 20:1 zoom lens and infrared capabilities, and his bionic limbs had power equivalent to that of a bulldozer. Science fiction then: reality now.
After nearly eight years of development and testing, the “Luke Arm”, a robotic arm for amputees, has been approved for commercialization by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Officially named the DEKA Arm System, this is one of the most advanced robotic prostheses ever built. According to the FDA, this is the first prosthetic arm approved by the agency that “translates signals from a person’s muscles to perform complex tasks.”
The original goal was to develop an advanced prosthetic arm with near-natural control to improve quality of life for amputees. What makes the DEKA Arm unique is that it can carry out multiple simultaneous powered movements, and its wrist and fingers can adjust its position to perform six different user-selectable grips. In addition, force sensors let the robotic hand precisely control its grasp. The DEKA Arm, which is similar in size and weight to a natural limb, relies on a combination of control inputs. The main signals come from electromyogram (EMG) electrodes, which sense electrical activity on muscles close to where the prosthesis is attached. A computer on the prosthesis receives the EMG signals and interprets them to make the fingers open or close, or change the grip configuration to allow the user to pick something up, for example, a coin. In order to perform the complex movements DEKA wanted, engineers realized they needed additional control inputs so they put special switches on the user’s feet to wirelessly transmit signals to the arm’s computer, allowing the user to control multiple joints simultaneously. DARPA released this video showing a man using the arm to grasp eggs and move them from one carton to another.
In a statement by Christy Foreman, director of the Office of Device Evaluation at the FDA’s Center for Devices and Radiological Health, “The DEKA Arm System may allow some people to perform more complex tasks than they can with current prostheses in a way that more closely resembles the natural motion of the arm.”
While there is still work to be done and technology yet to be uncovered, the DEKA Arm could transform something that looked like science fiction into real technology. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is an agency of the U.S. Department of Defense responsible for the development of new technologies for use by the military.
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