DARPA designs advanced prosthetic arm

Chicago (IL) – DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and the Department of Veteran Affairs have begun a three-year study of an advanced artificial arm.

“This arm is a high-tech example of how VA researchers are continually modernizing the materials, design, and clinical use of artificial limbs to meet veterans’ lifestyle and medical needs,” said Dr. Joel Kupersmith, VA’s Chief Research and Development Officer.

According to Kupersmith, the arm enables those who have lost a limb up to their shoulder joint to perform movements while reaching over their head – a previously impossible maneuver for those with an artificial arm.

Kupersmith explained that the arm’s control system was similar to a foot-operated joystick. Indeed, an array of shoe-embedded sensors allows users to maneuver the arm by placing pressure on various parts of the foot. Although the current prototype utilizes wires to relay the signals to the arm, future iterations are expected to be wireless.

The arm can be adapted to function with other control systems, including myoelectric switches wired to residual nerves and muscles in the upper body. The sophisticated switches are capable of responding to movement impulses from the brain, shoulder joysticks and other conventional inputs.

Frederick Downs Jr., director of VA’s Prosthetic and Sensory Aids Service, said he was “brought to tears” when the prosthetic arm allowed him to smoothly bring a water bottle to his mouth and drink.  

“Learning to use the controls is not difficult,” said Downs, who lost lost his left arm during combat in Vietnam.

The above-mentioned study is currently being conducted under the auspices of Dr. Linda Resnik at the Providence, R.I., VA Medical Center.