Some of America’s top scientists have unveiled the next milestone in their development of a prosthetic arm: The advanced prosthetic can now be controlled through thought. The development doesn’t just bring mankind one step closer to a future of cyborgs - it also has life-changing potential for injured veterans.
The massive multi-site cybernetic arm project was funded by DARPA as part of its Revolutionizing Prosthetics program. Scientists and researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine used a specially-modified prosthetic arm constructed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.
The Johns Hopkins superarm, called the Modular Prosthetic Limb, is one of the world’s most advanced prosthetic limbs. According to the JHU team working on the project, the arm has 27 degrees of freedom, as well as the ability to sense temperature, contact, pressure and vibration.
During tests at the University of Pittsburgh, volunteers successfully controlled the prosthetic arm with their minds. Tim Hemmes, a quadriplegic injured seven years ago in a motorcycle accident, was able to move an arm for the first time in years.
Hemmes used a custom designed brain-computer interface to stretch out and manipulate the robot arm. He first touched the palm of a researcher on the team and then used the robot arm to give his girlfriend a high-five.
According to Hemmes, “I put my heart and soul into everything they asked me to do […] I got to reach out and touch somebody for the first time in seven years.” The custom interface Hemmes used to control the arm consists of a grid of electrodes placed on the surface of the brain. Work on the brain-computer interface has taken place over the past several years, but was fast-tracked in 2009 after massive advances were made.
The brain-computer interface’s success in real life is allowing DARPA and their partners to begin work on several more advanced trials. Over the next two years, researchers at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and Caltech will begin trials on five volunteers with spinal cord injuries to investigate real-life use of the robotic arm.
DARPA literature indicates that the agency believes the robotic arms will be able to have practical applications in the lives of amputees and those affected by spinal cord injuries, strokes and neurological disorders or damage. The FDA has launched a special priority review program called the Innovation Pathway Initiative; the Modular Prosthetic Limb will be the very first project to go through the Initative.
Officials at DARPA believe this will lead to a fast track for FDA approval of the device.