Army Contract Seeks Better Robotic Prosthetics

By Eric Beidel
Since 2003, more than 1,100 soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have had a limb amputated.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency spent $100 million to develop a robotic arm that can be controlled through a chip in a user’s brain.

Now a Virginia technology company has been given $1.4 million to develop simulation and modeling techniques that could lead to more affordable robotic arm prosthetics.

Unlike similar research that relies on mannequins, Alion Science and Technology is developing a 3-D model of a limb based on ultrasound images, said program manager Terry Philippi.

The ultimate goal is to use a syringe to implant wireless sensors into a patient’s arm to optimize control of a prosthetic. But researchers first have to find the working nerves and muscles left after an injury. Amputations from bomb blasts are not as clean as those resulting from disease, Philippi said. “Usually you have 15 to 17 arm muscles and put a sensor in each muscle,” she said. “We’ll only inject sensors where there is a viable nerve or muscle.”

The company will create a database of muscles by working with live limbs, ultrasound imagery and 3-D virtual models. Alion wants to create advanced control systems that can be tailored to specific patients. These optimized designs with fewer sensors could lead to less expensive prosthetics, Philippi said.

The research also could lead to breakthroughs in bringing back to life paralyzed muscles.

Topics: Robotics, Science and Engineering Technology, DARPA

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