Johns Hopkins Working to Develop A Mechanical Human Arm
One of war’s costs can be found in those who return from battle alive, but maimed. Crude prosthetics have been around for a long time, but they could only restore a semblance of normal function at best. In the last decade, however, advances in design and materials science are creating passive prosthetics good enough to allow some of their wearers to compete in world-class races – or return to active duty.
The next step is active prosthetics that can approach normal human function, and are controlled by their wearer. The ideal is to exercise that control via the wearer’s own nervous system, just like a biological limb. In 1958, medical doctor and USAF colonel Jack Steele coined the term ‘bionics’ to describe technology that works as part of a human body. In the 1970s, “The Six Million Dollar Man” TV series chronicled the adventures of a man with a super-powered bionic eye, legs, and right arm. Fast forward 30 years, where the twin impellers of technological advances and the pressure of war are making the concept of active prosthetic limbs a viable concept. Even as art imitates life with a revived Bionic Woman TV series.
America’s DARPA specializes in that kind of cutting-edge, “give it a try” research, and they are working with Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, MD to achieve that goal…
Their aim of Broad Agency Announcement No. 05-26 is very ambitious: a complete 22 degree of freedom prosthetic arm with full motor and sensory function, built in a modular fashion to allow for upgrades, and controlled by the patient’s nervous system. In other words, a prosthetic that’s almost the equivalent of a normal human arm. This project will include research areas such as neural control, sensory input, advanced mechanics and actuators, and prosthesis design and integration.
Even with Moore’s Law’s geometric progression, however, 6 million dollars is chicken feed for a project of this scope. These days it’s reportedly smarter to ask for one billion dollars instead, just to remain on the safe side. DARPA isn’t asking for nearly that much, but they do continue to invest…
Contracts and Key Events
While this is a DARPA program, The USA’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Pacific (SSC Pacific), Biosciences Division manages the program.
Oct 17/08: A $14.3 million modification to a previously awarded cost plus fixed fee, research and development contract (N66001-06-C-8005). This modification will increase the first option period costs to fund additional functionality and clinical transition of prototypes, as well as additional tasking related to US Food and Drug Administration Regulatory Requirements. The cumulative value of this contract, including this modification, is $72.4 million.
The period of performance to complete phase 2 of the option award, which includes this modification, is from Oct 17/08 through Jan 30/10.
Feb 6/06: A $30.4 million completion-type, research and development contract with cost-plus-fixed-fee pricing. This contract contains option that, if exercised, would bring the cumulative value of this contract to an estimated $54.8 million.
Work will be performed in Laurel, MD (21.59); Salt Lake City, UT (18.71%), Los Angeles, CA (11.63%); Pasadena, CA (7.3%); Baltimore, MD (7.3%); Chicago, IL (5.38%); Fredericksburg, VA (5.1%); Nashville, TN (4.9%); Evanston, IL (4.9%); Rochester, NY (2.6%); Irvine, CA (2.34%); Germantown, MD (1%); Washington, D.C. (1%); Ann Arbor, MI (0.62%); Vienna, Austria (5.4%); and Umea, Sweden (0.18%); and is expected to be complete February 2008 (February 2010 with options). This contract was competitively procured under US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Broad Agency Announcement No. 05-26, and was published on the Federal Business Opportunities website with unlimited proposals solicited. Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center, San Diego, CA issued the contract (N66001-06-C-8005).
- Center for Ethical Bionics. Founded in 1992.
- DID (Feb 21/08) – DARPA Program Reaches for Better Prosthetics
- Popular Science (Sept 19/05) – A Toast to the Bionic Man: Jesse Sullivan test-drives a brain-powered artificial arm . He probably won’t be getting a TV series, though: “Jesse broke 12 stainless-steel bolts on the earlier model trying to pull-start a lawn mower,” Kuiken says. “If I let him take the prototype home, it would be toast in minutes. We still need to make it stronger.”