Dean Kamen's "Luke Arm" Prosthesis Readies for Clinical Trials

As Kamen discovered when he talked to patients in rehabilitation clinics and at VA hospitals, after the initial shock of amputation wears off, usually within a year or two, patients stop wearing their prostheses.

IEEE Spectrum reports on Dean Kamen’s “Luke arm”—a prosthesis named for the remarkably lifelike prosthetic worn by Luke Skywalker in Star Wars. It appears that DARPA and Deka Research and Development Corp. [Kamen’s R&D firm] may have achieved a breakthrough in an area that has seen almost no progress in the past century. Exciting! Short excerpt from the article:

…If DARPA gives the project the green light—and some greenbacks—the state-of-the-art bionic arm will go into clinical trials. If all goes well, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gives its approval, returning veterans could be wearing the new artificial limb by next year.

When DARPA director Tony Tether and Revolutionizing Prosthetics program manager Colonel Geoffrey Ling approached him in 2005, Kamen says he thought they were crazy—“in the good kind of way,” he says. There was no financial incentive to create a next-generation prosthetic arm. The research and development costs were enormous. Unless funded by DARPA, no private company would take such a risk for such a comparatively small market (in the Americas, about 6000 people require arm prostheses each year). Kamen spent a few weeks traveling around the country interviewing patients, doctors, and researchers to get an idea of the current technology—and soon saw the deficit in available arm prosthetics. He was swayed by the discrepancy between the current state of leg prostheses and that of arm prostheses. “Prosthetic legs are in the 21st century,” he says. “With prosthetic arms, we’re in the Flintstones.”

So he set out to reinvent the prosthesis that has been pretty much the same since the U.S. Civil War. Until now, a state-of-the-art prosthetic arm has meant having up to three powered joints. However, since this type of arm is frustrating to control and doesn’t provide that much functionality, most users still opt for the hook-and-cable device which has been around for over a century. In either case, these prosthetics only have three degrees of freedom—a user can move the elbow, the wrist, and open and close some variant of a hook.

The arm has motor control fine enough for test subjects to pluck chocolate-covered coffee beans one by one, pick up a power drill, unlock a door, and shake a hand. Six preconfigured grip settings make this possible, with names like chuck grip, key grip, and power grip. The different grips are shortcuts for the main operations humans perform daily.

Here’s a short video of the Luke Arm on the IEEE website. I recommend the seven minute TED presentation by Dean Kamen, which includes video of test piloting.

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1 thought on “Dean Kamen's "Luke Arm" Prosthesis Readies for Clinical Trials

  1. Have experience with I hand and O bock. Interested in pursuing this level of technology. Have excellent candidates for comparison with other systems.
    VA Tampa

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