The Roadblocks to Making Prosthetic Miracles Happen Every Day

Monday, August 31st, 2009

As the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) approaches its self-imposed deadline to make high-tech prosthetics that begin to approach the abilities of natural limbs by 2009, the research communities that have made it happen are beginning to ask, “Can we create companies that can turn a mind-blowing prototype or demo into real products?”

Veterans, amputees and other people living without limbs ask, “Can you help me soon?”

“People are always reading something in a journal or magazine and asking, ‘Can you help my grandson?’ Gerald Loeb, professor of biomedical engineering at the University of Southern California, told TechNewsWorld. “They don’t realize that it can take many years to take a research finding or even a prototype to the point where it’s available to doctors and rehabilitation clinics, and can be easily and simply installed and customized by a doctor or a technician,” he said. “They don’t realize that we’re currently harvesting the results of stuff that was in research labs and journal articles 15 or 20 years ago.”

The Pay-Off

These questions go to the core of one of the central rationales that has made DARPA projects politically salable: the implied promise that the R&D projects that the agency funds can have pay-offs and high-tech spin-offs in the civilian world. The premise has paid off in support from both business and rank-and-file voters. Frequently, researchers and politicians alike cite the 1960s space program’s most high-profile, successful spin-off: the improvement and mass miniaturization of transistor technology, which led to the microprocessor and computer revolution of the 1980s.

“The big difference between the potential of the transistor and prosthetic limbs is that years ago, there was eventually a potential for a market of millions of microprocessors and computers. But there is only a market for — maybe — tens of thousands, or maybe 100,000 artificial limbs. It’s going to be a challenge to come up with ways to create products that work for a much smaller market. And you have to add to that the problem that every amputee’s need is different, so whatever we come up with has to be customizable.”

Stuart Harshbarger–project manager for DARPA’s prosthetic push and biomedicine team leader at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory, agrees. He’s a veteran of the years of work that it has taken to pull together cutting-edge research in robotics, machine learning, biophysics, neurology, cognition, psychology and computer science, but he recently told TechNewsWorld that the next phase of his work is going to involve the search for both business models and technology that can integrate the state-of-the-art with financial feasibility. He’s currently transitioning to a new role – -chief scientific officer at Orthocare Innovations, headquartered in Oklahoma City.

“There’s a lot of research that never makes it into a product or into actual use,” he says, “and the market for much of it is small — hundreds or perhaps tens of thousands at most for the upper arm market — and much of the technology so far has been totally proprietary.” What’s needed, he said, is a solution that’s modular and that allows different companies to plug into artificial limbs, each handling different aspects of making a limb work and integrate into human bodies.

Opening Up

Part of the answer, says Harshbarger, may lie in a concept heavily used in commercial computing: open systems. Different firms could develop different pieces of the required technology, which could then be used to fashion limbs that are tailorable to what an individual needs.

“We’re trying to figure out what the right level of openness might be appropriate. We’re thinking of systems that aren’t totally open, maybe just published interface specs so that new modules and components could be created to handle different types of problems,” he said. “Some components could remain proprietary, so there will be some business cases for new development and research,” he says.

Loeb, too, is currently involved in research that he hopes will help other startups in their efforts to “productize” their life-changing demos. He recently became founding CEO of SynTouch , a startup company developing tactile sensing technology for prosthetic and robotic manipulation.

“A lot of technologies are ready for the final push to products,” he says. “We’ve been working on a virtual integration environment for about 10 years, and we can use it to simulate a prosthetic device. We can even train people to use a virtual prototype before we build it, so we can see how it’s going to work for them, and how well a particular patient will be able to control a new system,” he says.

Even the inventors of promising technologies say they see so many things that will have to happen before the dream of a fully functional limb that can be used to grasp, to move, and to feel is fully achievable.

As Aleksandr Noy, a biochemist at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, told TechNewsWorld, “You see videos from DARPA where a woman’s face changes as she feels the difference between soft and rough, and that’s great, but so much has to happen first.”

By Lisa Stapleton

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