The holiday season is bringing high-tech offerings for U.S. war veterans this year in the form of sophisticated bionic arms developed under the direction of DARPA. In a ceremony today at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) in Bethesda, Md., Justin Sanchez, Director of DARPA’s Biological Technologies Office, delivered the first two advanced “LUKE” arms from a new production line—shiny evidence that the fast-track DARPA research effort has completed its transition into a commercial enterprise. As part of that transition process, DARPA is collaborating with WRNMMC to make the advanced prostheses available to service members and veterans who are rehabilitating after suffering upper-limb loss.
The limbs are being manufactured by Mobius Bionics LLC of Manchester, N.H., a company created to market the technology developed by DEKA Integrated Solutions Corp., also of Manchester, under DARPA’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics program. The prosthetic system—“LUKE” stands for Life Under Kinetic Evolution, but is also a passing reference to the limb with which Luke Skywalker was endowed in Star Wars: Episode V The Empire Strikes Back—enables extremely dexterous arm and hand movement with grip force feedback through a simple, intuitive control system. The modular, battery-powered limb is of near-natural size and weight. It features a hand that has six user-selectable grips and an arm that allows for simultaneous control of multiple joints using a variety of inputs, including wireless signals generated by innovative sensors worn on the user’s feet.
“The commercial production and availability of these remarkable arms for patients marks a major milestone in the RP program and, most importantly, an opportunity for our wounded warriors to enjoy a major enhancement in their quality of life,” Sanchez said. “And we are not stopping here. In addition to supporting the initial production of these near-natural prostheses, the RP program is continuing to make huge strides in the restoration of upper arm control. Ultimately we envision these limbs providing even greater dexterity and highly refined sensory experiences by connecting them directly to users’ peripheral and central nervous systems.”
The technology underlying prosthetic legs has advanced steadily over the past couple of decades, but prosthetic arms and hands have proven to be a far tougher challenge, in part because of the need for much greater degrees of dexterity. When the LUKE arm first went into development, people who had lost upper limbs were largely relegated to using the relatively primitive “split-hook” device that had changed little since its introduction in 1912.
DARPA launched the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program with a radical goal: gain U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for an advanced electromechanical prosthetic upper limb with near-natural control that enhances independence and improves quality of life for amputees. Less than eight years after the effort was launched, that dream of development and FDA approval became a reality.
Under a recently finalized agreement between DARPA and WRNMMC, DARPA will transfer LUKE arms from an initial production run to the medical center for prescription to patients yet to be selected. Mobius Bionics will train the WRNMMC staff on fitting the prostheses as well as provide service and support of the arms.
Photo Caption: (Left to right) U.S. Army Colonel Michael Heimall, Director, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC); U.S. Air Force Colonel Jeffrey Bailey, MD, Director for Surgery, WRNMMC; Colonel (Ret.) Paul Pasquina, MD, Chief of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation, WRNMMC; Justin Sanchez, Ph.D., Director, Biological Technologies Office, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency; Lieutenant Colonel Keith Myers, MD, Director, Amputee Clinic, WRNMMC.
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