Back in 1980, when Luke Skywalker was fitted with a robotic limb after losing his hand in the film "Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back," it was pure science fiction. But what was once fantasy is now a reality.
Inventor Dean Kamen and his team at DEKA Research and Development, based in New Hampshire, have developed "Luke," a robotic prosthetic arm, aptly nicknamed after Luke Skywalker. The arm is considered a game changer for amputees. "Instead of giving them a metal hook that they can't do anything with, what if we can give them a bunch of grips to do the things you do in daily living? Pick up a spoon or pick up an electric drill or open a door," says Kamen.
The idea first came about when the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) approached Kamen about building a better prosthetic for soldiers who have lost an arm in combat. "They said, 'Give us a real hand that works, that has all the fingers and the thumb that can move in every direction. Give us an arm that really functions,'" says Kamen.
The Luke Arm is the first prosthetic arm that can perform multiple, simultaneous powered movements controlled by Bluetooth sensors. The sensors are approximately the size of a matchbook and can be placed in the arm wearer's shoe. The arm has six different grips, and the movements are controlled with a roll or tip of the foot.
Kamen and his team spent eight years developing the arm, and recently the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved it for sale. There is no price quote yet, and Kamen says looking for companies to produce the robotic arms will be a challenge. "Since the market is so small … none of the major medical companies that we deal with, and I know them all very well, have been able to come up with a business plan that makes this an attractive product to make," Kamen says.
Kamen is no stranger to taking on projects big or small. All his inventions have one common theme: They tackle a problem in education, health care or the environment and try to use technology to solve the problem. He holds more than 400 patents and has invented many things, including a water purifier called the Slingshot, the iBOT powered wheelchair, and the first portable insulin pump. But Kamen's most recognizable invention is the Segway. A two-wheeled, battery-powered electric vehicle, like the one seen in the film "Paul Blart: Mall Cop." When asked which project he is the proudest of, Kamen replies, "We haven't done our best project yet, because every day we get bigger and smarter and stronger, and we take on the next big challenge. I like to look forward, not back. So I can't tell you what our favorite project is, because it hasn't happened yet."
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