The Future of Prosthetics

Expect the Impossible—But Be Patient

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This is part of a series of stories on design and disability from the July-August 2009 Utne Reader. For more read “ Form and Fashion ,” “ Building a Better Arm ,” “ Prosthetic Power ,”  and “ The Hype and Hope of Prosthetics .”

These are exciting times for prosthetics. Within the next five years, the field of advanced prosthetics may achieve what was long thought impossible: a fully dexterous limb system available to consumers. According to John Bigelow, program director for the Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) at Johns Hopkins University, APL and its partners in the Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) find themselves in a perfect storm, in which increased demand and resources are driving technological innovation.

Hailing APL as “The Manhattan Project for the Next Generation,” IEEE Spectrum reported in March 2008 that the Johns Hopkins team had completed work on Proto 1, at that time the most advanced mechanical arm ever made. In January of this year, New Scientist caught up with its successor, Proto 2, which has “almost as much dexterity as a human limb.” Bigelow’s group is experimenting with ways for users to exact muscle control over the arm, and is even working on connecting it to the nervous system so users can operate it using thought.

However, the gap between what’s possible and what’s readily available still exists, which means the bionic age is still a ways off.  

“The media sometimes sets up false expectations,” Bigelow says. “We’re still a pretty far cry from a commercial device. There needs to be an incremental strategy for releasing these capabilities.”

Proto 1 will be ready for clinical trials sometime next year, with the Proto 2 expected to follow suit the year after that. Factor in FDA approval and regulation, and it will be at least five years before Proto 2 hits the market.

But Bigelow remains optimistic. “At the end of five years,” he says, “consumers will see a tremendous selection of prosthetics available, depending on your range of injury and medical intervention.”

And beyond prosthetics, the technologies that APL is working on could potentially be applied to things like nerve damage repair and exoskeleton assists for stroke victims.

“The program is a bit like the space program in the sixties,” Bigelow says. “Getting to the moon was one thing, but the spinoff technological impact was truly staggering.”

To learn more about the latest in prosthetics, visit these sources:

A Manhattan Project for the Next Generation of Bionic Arms,” from IEEE Spectrum
The DEKA Arm” segment on 60 Minutes, in which Jonathan Kuniholm makes a cameo appearance
The Revolution Will Be Prosthetized”, from IEEE Spectrum, a good overview of the DARPA and Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program