The Luke Arm at All Things Digital 2008
Earlier this year, at the All Things Digital conference, one of the speakers was Dean Kamen, inventor of the Luke Arm, a highly sophisticated prosthetic arm developed with DARPA funding.
Luke Arm is named after Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, and more specifically, after the prosthetic hand the character is fitted with, that so perfectly mimics biological functionality. At the end of August, some scant two weeks back, the Luke Arm's funding ran out, so the future of the project is in the hands of DARPA, to determine whether it is worth putting more money into it.
The Luke arm grew out of DARPA's Revolutionizing Prosthetics program, which was created in 2005 to fund the development of two arms.
The other arm is the one that holds our attention, the fully functioning, neurally controlled prosthetic arm, with which work towards is led by led by Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The funding of that project is secure. Luke Arm is still shrouded in doubt.
It is being developed by a company better known for the Segway, Deka Research and Development Corporation. Luke is essentially plug and play for the human body. As close to 'strap it and go' as possible. Minimal acclimation time, almost completely non-invasive, and modular in sections, to fit any degree of amputation.
The three videos below -two at 15 minutes each, and one at eight, are the All Things Digital 2008's own footage, kindly released, of the state of the arm, in early 2008.
The US military are proud of the fact that Americans have a far better chance of world class surgical care if they served in Iraq, than if they had a car accident in their own country. That basically means the military throw everything they have into battle triage, and hospital care for the wounded. However, that comes with a price attached - when damaged flesh is removed, it cannot be reattached. In Iraq/Afganistan alone, in one year, Dean states that 16,000 troops lost a full arm, not counting those with missing forearms, blown off hands or fingers, but the full arm, right to the shoulder.
The problem then is, those troops require a replacement. In 2005, when the project started, the most advanced arm prosthetic, had not changed in design, since the American Civil War.
The state of the art prosthetic for the arm, just three years ago, was a hook-and-cable device which has been around for over a century.
One of the constraining factors of creating a new arm being the weight requirement. Because it is still difficult to hook into the skeleton for structural support, the prosthetic is tied to soft tissue only, and uses a harness to support its weight - it must weigh less than the original arm, but still retain all that functionality. If it doesn't, then patients will simply not wear it, as it becomes too burdensome for the limited functionality it does give.