Turning Weapons into Arms
There has not been an overwhelming amount of good news to emerge from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last several years. But one very significant and very positive development has been the emergence of the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The program, administered by the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University with collaboration from dozens of other research institutions and commercial firms, is tasked with developing a next-generation prosthetic arm for soldiers returning from battle with missing limbs resulting from their injuries.
At the 2010 Neural Interfaces Conference in Long Beach last month, Jacob Vogelstein from JHU APL gave attendees an update on progress to date. We were genuinely impressed with the level of sophistication achieved so far in the two prototypes that have been constructed. Even more important, we were struck with the enormous potential for commercial spinoffs from this program, thanks in large part to the advance thought that has been given to factors such as input/output standards, software integration, and modular designs to accommodate different amputation levels.
The program managers have published the specifications for many of the hardware and software components, allowing third-party manufacturers to offer compatible components and subassemblies once the prototype limbs are ready for production. In many ways, we see DARPA’s role here as not just developing prototype modular limbs, but also establishing key standards for the emerging motor prosthetics industry in much the same way that Apple and IBM set standards for the personal computing industry in the 1980s.
The first group of manufacturers to benefit from this program is the commercial firms participating in the project, which include Otto Bock Healthcare, Ripple, Martin Bionics, Sigenics Inc., and Kinea Design. Signal processing vendors like Plexon and Blackrock Microsystems will also benefit from the knowledge that the arm’s virtual integration environment accepts inputs from their boxes.
But even vendors who are not currently working on this program will benefit if they can exploit the standard interfaces and I/O specifications that other developers have been supporting. By modularizing the design of the prosthetic arm, DARPA has, in our view, not only improved its functionality, but also expedited the pace of enhancement.
Not since the NASA Apollo mission has the opportunity for commercial spinoffs from government programs been this promising. If the boost that the motor prosthetics industry receives from this program is anywhere near what we expect, we can all thank the service people who risked their lives and limbs for our well being.
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