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Despite all the recent breakthroughs in prosthetics technology, I can’t say I’m one of those people who would elect to amputate a limb in order to receive a stronger cybernetic one (although exoskeletons are a nifty solution, as they allow people to keep their natural limbs but add strength-enhancing technology when they want). Still, I can’t help but wonder how many people would consider opting for a bionic arm modeled on the one Luke Skywalker receives after Darth Vader sends his hand flying.
The FDA recently approved the DEKA arm, the first prosthetic arm able to perform movements controlled by electrical signals emitted by muscles near the device. The arm system contains EMG (electromyogram) electrodes that send electrical signals from the muscles to a processor that converts them into as many as 10 different and simultaneous movements. A 2012 study also demonstrated the ability for wearers to use neural implants to control the device via their brains. One of the studies submitted to the FDA involved 36 veterans who were outfitted with the arms, 90% of whom experienced abilities beyond those of their current prostheses.
The DEKA system has undergone eight years of research and testing, funded by DARPA and led by Dean Kamen, who invented the Segway and who appeared on The Colbert Report with a water-purifying system. Kamen nicknamed the bionic arm “Luke” because of its breakthrough capabilities, and because someone wearing it could actually fare decently in a lightsaber duel.
The arm is battery-powered and is the same shape, size, and weight of a typical arm. It can be adjusted for people who have lost a limb at the shoulder, upper arm, or lower arm. It’s got six different grips, and the system can actually tell what kind of grip or movement the wearer wants. Someone wearing the DEKA would grab an egg differently than s/he would grab a baseball, and the system can register that.
DEKA can now be sold and marketed in the U.S., and word has it that New Hampshire-based DEKA Integrated Solutions is looking for a manufacturer. There’s no word yet on the cost of the device, but it almost certainly won’t come cheap. I wonder what Luke paid for his.