Luke Skywalker lost his arm to Darth Vader's light saber, but before the closing titles he was back in action with a fully functional new 'robotic' arm. Are we decades away from making that type of technology a reality, or is it just around the corner?
"It's not just science fiction..."
DARPA has been seeking proposals for the development of the Skywalker type arm - a prosthesis that would not only look just like a real arm, but would also perform just as well - if not better. Of course there are numerous design challenges that will have to be solved before we are able to come even close to making that a reality. One of the biggest issues is how to actually control the limb - how to link the wearer's thoughts to control the arm's movements and to provide feedback. Power, flexibility, durability, and a wide range of environmental conditions also present very daunting design hurdles.
But there is hope. For example, the work that's been done by Liberating Technologies, a Holliston Massachusetts based developer of upper limb prosthetics, is nothing short of amazing. Their basic design philosophy includes striking themes like "...accommodate the individual user's needs rather than requiring the user to adapt to the controller." And, it's not just blue sky, good feeling marketing hype - their devices are actually being deployed and successfully utilized by amputees in the 'real world'.
According to October 24th Design News cover story (see link below), one of the new upper-limb prosthetics was utilized by Jesse Sullivan - a power company lineman who had lost his arms due to an accident. In a very short time, he was able to control the new limb, rotate the wrist, bend the elbow, and grip.
Earlier design approaches have almost always required the user go through a long and often frustrating learning process where they re-map some of their existing muscles - like the biceps - to control their new hand. The new design, used in Sullivan's arm, utilizes "nerve reinnervation" and is a more direct mapping of the wearer's neural 'wiring'. Kind of a "I think, therefore I move", design approach.
Todd Kuiken, the physician that came up with the original concept and also is the director of aputee programs and associate dean at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, is quoted in the Design News article saying, "With this arm, Jesse can take off his baseball cap and put it back on. He can reach up and take things from a cupboard. He can grasp and turn a doorknob."
Re-wiring the Body Article - Design News [October 24, 2005]
Jesse Sullivan, the World's First Bionic Man - Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago [Includes detailed background information, a bionic arm fact sheet, photos and a video of Jesse using the arm]
Liberating Technologies website - State of the Art Upper Limb Prosthetic Technology
Get ready for the Robo Arm - izreloaded blog [April 12, 2005]