The new arm allows movement precise enough to pick up a dime; a mind-controlled version is in the works. (DARPA)
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A prosthetic arm that enables amputees to pick up items as small as M&M's or drink from a flexible plastic bottle without squirting water everywhere could be commercially available by the end of the year.
But the invention — known as the "Luke arm" for its resemblance to Luke Skywalker's agile prosthetic in "The Empire Strikes Back" — isn't the only such breakthrough expected to draw attention this fall: The wizards behind the advanced Luke arm are expected to roll out new footage of an amputee deftly controlling her artificial arm simply by thinking about it.
The new sci-fi arm melds the technology of a tiny electrode laid on the surface of the brain with the Luke arm, creating the most advanced prosthetic ever.
"This, to me, is Alexander Graham Bell saying, ‘Can you please come in the room?' We are on the cusp of some extraordinary things," said Dr. Geoffrey Ling, a program manager at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
The number of service members who have lost one or both arms in the past 10 years is small compared with troops who have lost legs. Of the 5,694 troops who received amputations from 2001 to 2011, 500 suffered major amputations to one or both arms, with 216 receiving amputations at or above the elbow and 29 losing parts of both arms.
The relatively small number of upper-limb amputees in the civilian world also has discouraged commercial firms from investing in advanced upper-limb prosthetics research.
But here's where DARPA comes in, with its fundamental mission to support research to help troops and subsequently change history.
DARPA-led projects in the past 50 years include the Saturn V rocket, the Internet precursor ARPANET, stealth aircraft technology and, in 2005, the launch of the Revolutionary Prosthetics Program.
Seven years later — and only four years after the Luke arm prototype was developed — Food and Drug Administration approval is pending.
The arm, created under a DARPA contract by New Hampshire-based Deka Research and Development — owned by Segway inventor Dean Kamen — provides up to 10 points of movement, at the shoulder, elbow, wrist and hand.
The arm is controlled by foot pads or sensors that respond to movement in vestigial limbs, and each is individually crafted to suit its user's needs.
Amputee Fred Downs, a former Army lieutenant who lost his left arm to a land mine in Vietnam and served as chief of the Veterans Affairs Department's prosthetics office until he retired in 2011, was a test subject for the Luke arm.
He strapped on the $41,000 limb for two weeks straight to "really test its limits," as instructed by Deka and VA researchers. He ate normally, worked out and used the arm extensively in his garden, only stopping when he broke it swinging a sledgehammer.
"I missed the iron stake I was pounding and hit the arm. I guess it's good it didn't have any [touch] sensors in it," Downs said.
The brain-controlled arm is expected to have sensors — maybe not for pain, but for touch, temperature and pressure.
Downs, who has gone back to using the same type of prosthetic he received after his injury, said he believes young amputees will embrace the Deka arm and the advanced brain-controlled arm once it's available.
"It's going to be a real advantage for the young soldiers who won't be shy about the technology. It really restores functionality," he said.
DARPA's brain-controlled arm is still a few years off commercially. The $100 million project has involved hundreds of researchers from institutions including the National Institutes of Health, Johns Hopkins University, Duke University and the University of Pittsburgh.
But the team already is seeing rewards. In a video released last year, 30-year-old quadriplegic Tim Hemmes, paralyzed in a motorcycle accident in 2004, reached out with his robot arm and touched his girlfriend's hand for the first time — directing the movement purely by will.
"Her reaction is why all of us do what we do," Ling said, showing the footage at a science forum sponsored by the U.S.-Israel Science and Technology Foundation. "At the end of the day, science can do great things, but we have to serve our constituency, and that's our patients."