Prosthetics update - the future is NOW

Posted by Ralph | 10:12 PM

'Radu Litiu: Call it I, Robot meets reality. Had you walked around the Convention Center in downtown Seattle over the past few days, you couldn't have stopped from noticing the relatively large number of people wearing prosthetic legs and arms. They were attending the 2009 AOPA National Assembly, the premier annual conference and trade show of the prosthetics and orthotics industry.

Some of their prostheses looked robotic and futuristic. Some of them were surprisingly anatomically correct -- and surprisingly functional.

Most of these people were not mere attendees. They were in fact employees of the conference exhibitors -- from technicians to sales reps to founder/CEOs. Being a prosthesis user myself, this seems to be a great career choice.

What better way to channel your energy and to fulfill your professional aspirations than to work on a product you'll be a direct beneficiary of? What better way to "dogfood" your product and to provide a short feedback loop than to use the product yourself day-in-and-day-out and to direct all the customer feedback to the guy in the cubicle next to yours?

Although prosthetic technology has come a long way from the days of Captain Ahab (wooden leg and pirate hook), the prosthetic devices currently available commercially have not really kept up with the technology advancements.

As a technologist, I often ask: What has caused this evolutionary gap?

Why is it when the chip in my prosthesis failed, it cost $5000 to have it replaced? (The chip takes some sensor data, runs an algorithm with a few variables to select one in small set of commands, then sends it to the motor powering the joint). Could a commodity smart phone chip not do this work? Also, why are wires going around everywhere, at a time Bluetooth, ZigBee, and other short-range wireless communication technologies are commonplace?

The i-Hand from Touch Bionics
The companies presenting at the AOPA event are working on addressing some of these problems.

Today's prostheses are high tech mechano-electrical devices incorporating advanced technologies in the areas of lightweight and durable materials, low-powered, low-noise motors, computerized control, sensors, short-range wireless communication, haptic feedback and battery technology.

The products on display, some of them still in research prototype stage, hold great promise for the near future.

Among the exhibitors were the prosthetics industry heavyweights, such as Liberating Technologies, Ohio Willow Wood, Ossur, Otto Bock, Touch Bionics and Utah Arm. They showcased some of their current product lineup as well as a few of the novel devices they are working on, such as leg braces with automatically locking knee joints.

Great innovation often comes from smaller companies, though.

In terms of hand prostheses, the most functional product currently available seems to be the i-LIMB Hand from Touch Bionics.

Over the past few years, the DARPA Revolutionary Prosthetics program has injected new blood (a.k.a. money) into arm prosteses R&D efforts. I had the opportunity to get a preview of two of the success stories benefitting from this program -- including a very exciting presentation of the DEKA Arm.

Contineo hand from Orthocare
Seattle's own prosthetics company, Orthocare Innovations where I work, showed a research prototype of a hand with full finger motion. They also demonstrated lower limb developments funded by NIH such as the Compas Bluetooth sensor and software system for optimizing balance and dynamic function of prosthetic legs.

The AOPA event made me realize once again that improving healthcare and the general health of our population will not come only as a result of the healthcare reform we've been hearing about lately in the news.

Also, huge opportunities for unleashing creativity -- and for technological advancements -- are not only in the next social network or the best way of doing video advertising'

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