Defense

January 10, 2014

DARPA’s ‘bionic’ upper limb enhances life for amputees

It’s metal, sleek and precise. It pivots and flexes like a real hand, or at least one from a science-fiction movie.

But with no Hollywood special effects involved, brain research experts at yesterday’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Congressional Tech Showcase here demonstrated an artificial arm and hand that can do everything from picking up cups to playing the piano, powered by the user’s brain.

Mike McLoughlin, chief engineer for research and exploratory development at Johns Hopkins University’s applied physics laboratory, said DARPA’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program developed the device over about five years to improve the quality of life for service members who suffered the loss of an upper extremity.

“Five, six years ago [an amputee’s] option was essentially a hook,” McLoughlin said. “We want to give them a much greater level of functionality, because what they really want to do is go back and contribute to society.”

The demo also featured an excerpt from a 60 Minutes episode that aired in 2013 showing Jan, a patient suffering from a neurological condition, with two electrode chips, each about the size of a fingernail, in her brain.

Even simple tasks such as picking up a cup of coffee are the result of a complex series of commands and information “behind the scenes” in the brain, McLoughlin explained. “We’re able to take those complex things and reduce them down to simple thoughts.”

With the help of the arm and hand, Jan moved, interacted and grasped objects in a more natural way, McLoughlin said, adding that the arm also can function with information gleaned from a computer script.

He described the arm’s future and range of potential applications as “exciting” for service members and civilians alike.

“Think about the elderly,” he said. “If somebody has trouble getting around, and we can provide assistance through exoskeleton devices. That has huge impact, not only to the individual in terms of quality of life and being independent, but it also has huge financial implications, possibly saving them hospice care expenses.”




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