Researchers Pursue Truly Functional Prosthetic Arm

Jesse Sullivan demonstrates capabilites of prototype arm i i

Jesse Sullivan lost both arms in 2001 after an electrical accident on the job. He demonstrates the capabilities of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's first prototype prosthetic arm during tests at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago hide caption

itoggle caption Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago
Jesse Sullivan demonstrates capabilites of prototype arm

Jesse Sullivan lost both arms in 2001 after an electrical accident on the job. He demonstrates the capabilities of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's first prototype prosthetic arm during tests at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago
Prototype 1 prosthetic arm

The first prototype prosthetic arm developed by the DARPA program is shown here on a mannequin at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab. Franklyn Cater, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Franklyn Cater, NPR

Throughout military history, advances in technology — from internal combustion engines to airplanes to robotics — have changed war strategy and affected war outcomes. In Iraq and Afghanistan, advances in body armor and battlefield medical treatment mean more soldiers are surviving their wounds.

But more of those survivors are amputees, which has highlighted a somewhat lagging technology: prosthetic limbs, especially arms.

Historically, artificial legs have advanced more rapidly, in part because there is a bigger commercial market for legs. But also, the complexity of the human arm makes it an incredible design challenge.

Now, an international team of engineers and scientists is hoping to revolutionize prosthetic-arm technology. The ultimate goal is to build a strong, lightweight arm activated by neural impulses, which means it is controlled by an amputee's thoughts.

Funded by the U.S. Defense Department's Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, the project — with a price tag of about $30 million — is a collaborative effort between more than 30 labs, universities and private companies.

Rebecca Roberts visits the project's hub at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, Md., to learn more about the latest developments in prosthetic-arm technology, which are allowing unprecedented levels of control, sensory feedback and range of motion.

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