Friday, October 8, 2010

Bionic Prosthetics Finally Reaching The Market

Exo-assisted soldier lifts and loads heavy munitions
Exoskeletons to meet the needs of the military have narrowed to two major vendors: Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. Ratheon's new XOS2 robotic suit is lighter, faster and stronger than its predecessor and uses 50% less power.  Nevertheless it is extremely bulky and cumbersome.

Legs-only version of HULC
Lockheed Martin's HULC, licensed from Berkeley Bionics, is a completely untethered, hydraulic-powered exoskeleton that enables users to carry loads of up to 200 pounds for extended periods of time and over all terrains.  HULC is presently undergoing testing at the Army's Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Florida.

Cyberdyne's HAL
Meanwhile, Japan's Cyberdyne non-military HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) looks better, weighs less, operates longer on battery power.  It was recently chosen for an ABT-funded EU project in Denmark for a rehabilitation center at Odense University Hospital for clinical trials regarding worker augmentation, a use of interest to many.

Just last February, at an FDA Workshop in Washington, DC, I was demoralized to learn that wounded soldiers were still being fitted with old-fashioned hook appliances (CBS News) instead of the ones that I had been reading about in the science and tech journals.  

Dean Kamen shows off "Luke"
prosthetic under development at DEKA Labs
Shortly thereafter, Dean Kamen plugged DEKA's not-yet-ready arm and hand prosthetic (named "Luke") on The Colbert Report.  I asked an acquaintance from the VA about the situation and he commented that the DARPA/DEKA product was too heavy and not-yet ready for prime time.

When I asked him about TouchBionics, a British firm that had already done all the trials and had received the appropriate EU approvals for their bionic limbs, hands and fingers, he said that they had good products and that the VA would pay for them if they were asked to do so by the patient and his or her doctors.  Was that happening, I asked?  Were wounded Americans getting British products? No, was his answer... because nobody told them they could.

Today, one of the trickle-down products from all this government-sponsored activity has arrived and it is impressive: eLEGS from Berkeley Bionics, Lockheed Martin's partner with the military's HULC product. eLEGS provides a complete replacement of a natural human gait using the exoskeleton developed for the military. And the exoskeleton suit has been scaled down to reasonable proportions.

Check out this eLEGs video:

eLEGS was unveiled at a press conference yesterday in San Francisco by Berkeley Bionics’ CEO, Eythor Bender, who explained that the company’s mission is to provide people with unprecedented mobility options.
Many of the 6 million Americans who live with some form of paralysis today were highly active and at the top of their game when they sustained their injury. As they research their options for increased mobility, they discover that wheelchairs are pretty much it. This has been the only alternative – their only hope – for nearly 500 years,” he said. “We want to enhance their independence and freedom of movement,” he added, “and with eLEGS, they can stand up and walk for the first time since their injury.

eLEGS is not yet available to the general public. Clinical trials will commence early next year at select rehabilitation clinics in the United States. A limited release of eLEGS is scheduled during the second half of 2011 at several of the most respected rehabilitation facilities around the country. At that time, eligible patients will have the opportunity to enroll in a medically-supervised eLEGS gait training program, working with their physical therapist. Therapists will undergo training in order to become eLEGS-certified prior to assisting patients.
Many technological breakthroughs are creating a roadmap that is sure to offer disabled people new prosthetic devices to help them help themselves to a more normal existence in the very near future. Hands, arms, feet, legs, ankles, fingers... many are reaching the FDA in the form of clinical trials such as those described above for eLEGS. And there are advances that include wiring existing nerve endings in such a way as to give the wearer true sensation of feeling and touch.

The following projects are worthwhile and offer near-term possibilities for the disabled:
  • SmartHand, an EU-funded bio-adaptive hand prothesis
  • Modular Prosthetic Limb (MPL), a DARPA funded project at Johns Hopkins University, is designed to respond to user's thoughts
  • PowerFoot One from iWalk, funded by MIT, the VA and the US Army's Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center
  • REX Bionics' exoskeleton is a product similar to eLEGS in that it helps wheelchair users attain vertical mobility
  • Finally, an exoskeleton power assist suit (PAS)  from the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology is oriented to elder Japanese to help them lift and squat while farming their gardens and vegetable plots
All of the projects mentioned are focused on healthcare.  There are many other robotic hand, arm and gripper projects of equal merit which aren't oriented to the healthcare marketplace but will be reviewed in a future article.