Robot Arms: Not Just for the Jedi Anymore



It's not a topic to be taken lightly, despite the flippant nature of my title. You have got to read this, though. We've seen a lot of critically wounded service personnel return to fight the enemies that made them amputees in the first place. Some of the stories are remarkable. Grunts that lose and arm, so they study math to go back into the artillery, snipers that lose one eye so they teach themselves to shoot from the other. It's humbling, though if I had my druthers such incredible achievements would never be necessary.

Now this guy has designed something that takes prosthetic replacement to a whole new level. It's cool as hell, gang, and you have to wonder if it's not the often-theorized bridge to what you might as well think an "augmented grunt". Call it the Steve Austin theory (the really cool action hero from when I was growing up, not the big sweaty dude that jumps around a wrestling ring with other big sweaty dudes). You know. We can rebuild him. Better. Stronger. Faster.

Just for the record, for those of you who don't remember the Cold War, astronaut Steve Austin was way more bad ass and far cooler than the Terminator, Jake 2.0 or any of the other modern versions. Nothing against 'em, I'm just saying.

Anyway, inventor Dean Kamen, the guy that named it after Luke Skywalker (instead of Lee Majors' character, unfortunately, but we'll let that slide) says that while fatalities are down on the battlefield (better armor, better CASEVAC procedures, faster movement to a higher level of care facility, etc.), a lot of our guys and gals are coming back from the AOR missing limbs. The number of amputees has gone down some as quality of armor on the vehicles we're using goes up, but the while there are fewer troops losing limbs, the proportion of double amputatees has gone way up (as the insurgents use more and more powerful devices like the EFP to compensate for the better armor. In 2006, 25% of all servicemen and -women that became amputees lost two or more limbs; double the rate of 2003. Amputees comprise approximately 2.2% of WIA personnel, but 5% of personnel who are unable to return to duty. These are grim statistic sindeed, maybe one that really doesn't make your yes and heart hurt until you see them recovering and getting on with their lives. I'm honestly not sure how the staff there can go in day after day and not spend their evenings weeping.

So Dean Kamen set out to out to develop a prosthetic arm that would be sensitive enough to pick up a grape and allow a resident of Walter Reed's Ward 57 to pick up a razor, but be "self-contained" in terms of power. The original goal for development was a two year deadline. Apparently about a year later they'd developed a 9lb motorized arm using titanium and custom built motors, an arm with 18 degrees of movement. Not as good as never losing your arm to a muj device in the first place, but better than having to wipe your ass with a hook the rest of your life.

According to Gizmodo, "... control techniques are revolutionary. He's playing a video of a guy who didn't have both his arms for 18 years, and learned how to use the arms effectively in less than two dozen hours of training. He's showing a video that shows a guy who knows how to punch, pass a Ping Pong ball to his friend and pour a drink for another man who is holding a cup with the same type of arm. Then the video shows Chuck, the man with no arms, for the first time in 13 years, feeding himself cereal..."

Here's the most amazing thing about it - they're developing it so the limb can be controlled by the amputee's mind. Perhaps more of a conscious thing that what you're used to, but think about the ramifications of that for a minute. It's like something from the sci-fi channel (think Eureka) being used right now to improve the remainder of the lives of young men and women that have scarcely begun their lives. We're talking at times about personnel who aren't yet old enough to walk in and buy themselves a beer, but they've given up limbs in the service of their country.

Gizmodo also says that, "Attaching the arm directly to nerves required a lot of surgery...but there are limited arm functions, even if it's very complicated. Learning how to control a back hoe, with four controls, takes years. And the arm has 18 degrees of freedom. But people don't learn how by using each degree. In fact, it's more efficient, Dean says. There are three degrees of freedom, so they did macros. With this, a man learned how to pick up bottles, nails and other items.

Attaching the arm was a challenge, day to day. Nine pounds on an arm is heavy over a few minutes, let alone a day. So they knew that no one would wear them because of that. So Dean designed air bladders that shift the weight on the body when passive (like fidgeting in a chair) and inflate to be hard when the servos in the arm detect a load..."

Research is continuing for the use of infrared light to read signals going through the skull as a possible control mechanism.

I think the thing that impresses me the most about this guy is his attitude. He says it the responsibility of intellectually gifted and or wealthy people to help make the world a better place. He obviously walks the damn walk.

If you can stand to read more without your heart breaking (and I'm being serious here, not a wise ass) you might check out Military inStep,

-- Breach Bang Clear!

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