From Segway to Bionic Arm, Dean Kamen is on the cutting edge of prosthesis technology

DEKA Luke Arm

The Luke Arm. Image via DEKA Research and Development Corporation.

Heralded as the most advanced and lifelike prosthetics, Dean Kamen (creator of the Segway) has promised us a real life bionic man/woman in this lifetime. The “Luke Arm”, affectionately dubbed after Luke Skywalker, grew out of DARPA’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics program, which was created in 2005 to fund the development of prosthetic limbs for returning war-wounded soldiers.

The initiative led to the research, design, and creation of two prosthetic arms. One was for a four year, $30.4 million contract to be complete in 2009 and led by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Labratory in Laurel, Md. The program sought to create a fully functioning, neurally controlled arm using technology that is still experimental. The other contract was awarded to DEKA Research and Development Corp., Kamen’s New Hampshire-based medical products company (best known for the Segway). DEKA’s contract was for only a 2-year initiative, costing $18.1 million, and was an effort to give amputees an advanced prosthesis that could be available immediately.

The video below is a short presentation of the Luke Arm in action with Dean Kamen and one of DEKA’s volunteer amputees.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Luke Arm by Inventor Deam Kamen, posted with vodpod

In 2008 DARPA gave the project a green light and the Luke Arm went into clinical trials. The agility of the Luke Arm, which is what makes this prosthesis such a remarkable and revolutionary creation, lends its credit to an enormous amount of circuitry inside the arm, which allows for 18 degrees of freedom. As opposed to other advanced prosthetic arms which only allowed for 3 degrees (should, elbow, and wrist) of freedom. Furthermore, the sheer magnitude of circuitry required to operate such dexterity forced its creators so create rigid-to-flex circuit boards that folded into origami-like shapes in order to fit inside the tiny spaces within the bionic arm.

The Luke also had to be modular in order to accommodate any level of amputation. Much like a vaccuum cleaner with its array of various attachments, the hand contains separate electronics, as does the forearm. Even the elbow is powered and receives is power from the electronics contained withing the upper arm. The shoulder is also powered and has been able to accomplish a level of reaching up that has never been possible in other prosthetics.

The wearer of the Luke Arm controlls its use through controllers in their shoes. For example, pushing a button with the left big toe will cause the arm to reach out, while pushing a button with the right toe will cause the arm to move back in. A small, vibrating motor, called a tactor, placed against the wearers skin provides the necessary feedback and changes its rate of vibration changes the grip strength that is exerted.

With continued funding from DARPA, Kamen’s group started clinical take-home trials in 2009. Hopes are that DEKA will be able to submit Luke Arm to the FDA for approval to sell the prosthetic in the near future.

Adee, Sarah. “Dean Kamen’s Luke Arm Prosthesis Readies for Clinical Trials.” IEEE Spectrum. IEEE Spectrum, Feb. 2008. Web. 28 Sept. 2010.

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