"We Have the Technology"-Prostheses Put Troops Back in Action

April 8, 2011
By Beverly Schaeffer

The mid-1970s TV series "The Six Million Dollar Man" is no longer a mere futuristic dream. While today's injured warfighters aren't able to run 60 miles an hour or possess superhuman strength like fictional character Steve Austin, they are still achieving amazing results through robotics and prosthetics. And now, many are returning to service in fully functional mode. Technology Editor George I. Seffers looks at U.S. Army efforts to make soldiers physically whole again in his article, "Robotics Research Gives Life to Artificial Limbs," in this issue of SIGNAL Magazine. Success in robotics research thus far is astounding. Troy Turner is the portfolio manager for advanced prosthetics and human performance at the Army's Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center (TATRC), Fort Detrick, Maryland. He explains that research covers both prosthetics and orthopedics. As of February 1, the Army has treated 1,180 amputee soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003, Turner notes. Approximately 19 percent have endured an upper extremity amputation, meaning they have lost a hand, part of the arm or the entire arm. About 80 percent have lost a foot, a lower leg or an entire leg. Some have lost more than one limb. Amputee soldiers choosing to return to combat face challenges-they need manufactured body parts that are lightweight, durable and work under extreme conditions. Jason Ghannadian, TATRC program manager for advanced prosthetics, explains:

Our mission is to turn every service member back to the fullest quality of life, whether they want to return to their civilian lives or get back to the war. A lot of them want to know how long until they can get back to their unit. The goal is to let all of them get back, if they want, and to not have prosthetics be like a death sentence forcing them to sit behind a desk the rest of their lives.

Prosthetics developed or undergoing further testing include the computerized C-Leg, a commercially available prosthetic leg built by German firm Otto Bock. Its features include a microprocessor-controlled knee joint and wireless remote control. Testing revealed that it took on too much water in harsh scenarios, so it was redesigned for more robustness. The Spring Ankle with Regenerative Kinetics, or SPARKy, another TATRC-funded project, is being developed at Arizona State University and should become available later this year. DARPA's Defense Sciences Office has been integral to many efforts, lending its expertise in neural technology. TATRC also is funding research with Chicago firm Sigenics on solutions for more effectively controlling prostheses. Sigenics' tiny electrodes are either surgically implanted or injected into the body. These myoelectric sensors amplify brain signals to send messages directly to the artificial limb. Predicting what the future might hold is difficult, according to experts leading research efforts. Turner is optimistic about the fruits of this research:

The result may be that all of this stuff becomes obsolete, and somebody figures out how to grow a new arm or leg. That could be the ultimate goal, to be honest.

These are but a few of the many technologies under test and evaluation or currently in use. Is enough research under way to enable injured warfighters to become "whole" again? And is there optimal cooperation between industry/government/military? Please share your ideas and suggestions.

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