Luke Skywalker-Inspired Prosthetic Arm Lets Amputee Feel Objects Again

CNN tells the story of a new medical breakthrough for Keven Walgamott, who 17 years ago lost one hand and part of his forearm in an electrical accident.

Now, Walgamott can use his thoughts to tell the fingers of his bionic hand to pick up eggs and grapes. The prosthetic arm he tested also allowed Walgamott to feel the objects he grasped. A biomedical engineering team at the University of Utah created the “LUKE Arm,” named in honor of the robotic hand Luke Skywalker obtains in “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back” after Darth Vader slices off his hand with a lightsaber.
A new study published Wednesday in the journal Science Robotics explained how the arm revived the sensation of touch for Walgamott. The University of Chicago and the Cleveland Clinic were also involved in the study… The LUKE Arm sends signals to the brain in order to mimic the way a human hand can feel and sense information about an object, like whether it’s soft, hard, lightweight or heavy. “We changed the way we are sending that information to the brain so that it matches the human body…” said Jacob George, study author and biomedical engineering doctoral student at the University of Utah. “We’re making more biologically realistic signals…”

Utah Emeritus Distinguished Professor Richard A. Normann invented the Utah Slanted Electrode Array, a grouping of 100 microelectrodes and wires implanted in the forearm’s nerves and connected to an external computer. The array was able to read signals from the nerves remaining in Walgamott’s arm while the computer converted them into digital signals. The signals would act like messages for the arm to move. But in order to be successful, things would have to work the opposite way as well, meaning the LUKE Arm would need to be able to sense objects and understand the necessary pressure needed to hold them. Sensors in the hand of the LUKE Arm send signals through the Array to the existing nerves, communicating the feeling the hand should be receiving when it touches something.

Created by DEKA R&D (founded by Segway inventor Dean Kamen), the LUKE arm “was in development for 15 years and is composed of metal motors with a clear silicon overlay that mimics skin,” the article points out.

While it currently draws power from an external battery (and is wired to a computer), they’re working on creating a wireless version.

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