A New Era for Amputees? 5 Facts About Robot Prosthetics

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Star Wars hero Luke Skywalker was given a realistic bionic arm, allowing him a full range of movement and total independence. Back in this Universe, cutting-edge research from prosthetist Dean Kamen’s DEKA research team is making this degree of precision prosthetics more than fiction.

The team have named their robotic prosthetic arm LUKE, in homage to the science fiction legend, and announced that it could hit the market as early as this year, available through Mobius Bionics. Unlike previous prosthetic arm designs, the LUKE arm  directly taps into users’ nervous systems by reading electrical signals on the muscle, translating a user’s intent into movement of the robotics.

The announcement has been heralded as a game-changer for amputees, offering a fuller range of motion and far more sophisticated actions than prosthetics have previously allowed, with feedback sensors allowing users control over how much force they use via the arm.

With a release date set for late 2016, and a waiting list already in place for those who are interested in using it, the LUKE is set to be a thrilling leap forward in the world of prosthetics and orthotics. However, the work of the DEKA team is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the current wealth of prosthetic research.

We’ve rounded up 5 facts about robot prosthetics and the inspiring work being done to understand and augment human reflexes and neuromuscular control systems.

1. A team from the University of Kent is currently trialing a robotic prosthetic leg, which similarly interfaces electrical impulses from brain waves. The legs can lift users with double paralysis up from a sitting position, and allow them to engage in everyday activities and physiotherapy exercises.

2. Conventional prosthetics are custom-made to fit individual patients’ health, lifestyle and weight, making the process of being fitted for one very time-consuming. However, new technology such as the i-Limb Pulse by Touch Bionics can be customised far more quickly via software. The prosthetics can be programmed and reprogrammed with specific patterns via Bluetooth to fit the user’s requirements.

3. In order for so-called ‘thought-powered’ prosthetics to work, some amputees need to undergo a rare procedure known as targeted muscle reinnervation. This surgically rewires electrical signals in the residual limb, essentially bringing nerves back to life and allowing robotic prosthetics to read electric impulses from them.

4. In November 2015, DARPA released a press statement pre-empting DEKA’s LUKE arm, stating that they had created a prototype prosthetic arm capable of allowing a user full touch sensation. Using precision feedback sensors to communicate directly with the brain, researchers were able to induce touch sensation in a 28-year-old patient to the extent where he could identify which mechanical finger on the arm was being gently touched.

5. Paired with advancements made in robotic prosthetics and orthotics, the cost-effectiveness of 3D printing is ushering in a new era for amputees, with new 3D body scanning and modelling technologies allowing users to create prosthetics modelled on their own limbs, integrating them more naturally in terms of comfort and aesthetics.

With so many leaps forward in robotic prosthetics over the past five years, the future's looking brighter than ever for researchers’ understanding of neuromuscular control and touch sensation - not to mention the lives of disabled people, who now have a greater range of options than ever to aid them in living life to its fullest.

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