Pentagon Developing Bionic Arm

armWhile prosthetic legs have undergone remarkable advances in the past decades, the typical prosthetic arm hasn’t changed much since World War II: an artificial limb with a hook on the end. It’s a less than thrilling prospect for U.S. soldiers returning from Iraq or Afghanistan with amputated arms. However, a government-sponsored project may one day change that. CBS News reports that the Pentagon is working on a high-tech robotic arm with a fully functioning hand. The DEKA arm contains 25 circuit boards and 10 motors; one part of the device holds the equivalent computing power of three PCs. The arm is part of the government’s Revolutionizing Prosthetics program, which is run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Over 300 scientists, including Segway inventor Dean Kamen, are part of the project.

A major hurdle scientists faced was making the nine-pound arm comfortable enough to wear all day. They remedied this problem by attaching the device to the patient’s body via a group of tiny balloons that distributed the arm’s weight across the shoulder. The DEKA arm is controlled by flexing the shoulder and pressing buttons built into the patient’s shoes. Scientists hope they will one day be able to wire the device directly into the nervous system. While the patient’s arm may be missing, the nerve endings that controlled it are often still present and functional.

Another challenge of the project is cost. The DEKA arm took over four years and $100 million to create. The government will need to figure out how to make the device financially accessible to the 200-plus soldiers who have lost arms in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Development of prosthetic limbs continues in both the public and private sectors. Some companies working on artificial limbs are SCOPe Orthotics and Prosthetics, Scott Sabolich Prosthetics & Research, Ohio Willow Wood, iWalk, and Ossur HF.

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