One of the fascinating projects I’m researching for my book about DARPA is the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program. I recently spoke with DARPA’s program manager for the project, Army Colonel and intensive care unit doctor Geoffrey Ling, who filled me in on how the program came to be and his goals for it.
Ling was on a tour of duty in Afghanistan when he treated a young boy who’d lost an arm and a leg to a Russian land mine. That’s what planted the seeds in his mind for what became Revolutionizing Prosthetics. That, and an encounter with a young American soldier in Iraq who wept when Ling told him his million-dollar wound would get him sent home.
As Ling explained it to me, the goal of his program is a “brain-controlled arm that functions at the level of capacity of an arm, that looks like an arm, that weighs like an arm, and also gives you sensory feedback just like your arm would, and we want it within four years.”
The clock started ticking in 2005 and now the arm is due in 2009. The work is going on at the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University. That’s a prototype the group produced last year. I’ll get a full update on current progress at a massive, convention-style meeting of all the participating researchers in Maryland later this month.
Meanwhile, just to hedge his bets and get something in the pipeline even faster, Ling created a two-year arm project, now finishing up work at Dean Kamen’s DEKA Research (of Segway Human Transporter fame).
Ling calls this one the strap-and-go arm.”You wake up in the morning, you put it on, and off you go. It doesn’t require hooking up to your brain or anything like that, it’s a strap-and-go arm. So we recognize that the strap-and-go arm will not be as dexterous and as functional as the brain controlled one but it needed to be a whole lot better than the hook that’s available today–you know, the thing out of Peter Pan?”
I reported on DEKA’s arm last year, and I’m due for an update. Ling says progress since then has been amazing. “It’s a fantastic arm,” says Ling. “Mike, you have to see it to believe it.” I’m there.