Star Wars may take place in a galaxy far far away, but some of its technology is now being developing right here on planet earth. Later this year, a revolutionary prosthetic arm based on the one used by Luke Skywalker in the popular films will be released for commercial use in the U.S.
LUKE arm development
The LUKE arm, named after Luke Skywalker, was designed by Segway creator Dean Kamen, Mobius Bionics, and DEKA Research and Development Corp. It has been in development with funding from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for nearly a decade. It is the first integrated prosthetic arm to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and is the result of more than 10,000 hours of testing on 100 amputees.
The arm is designed for people with amputations from the forearm to the shoulder, many of whom have been using outdated and basic prosthetic devices. “Up to this point, design in prosthetic arms has been limited to incremental changes. We developed the LUKE arm to change the game for amputees – creating an innovative, integrated system that offers greater functionality and independence to our wounded warriors and other amputees,” said Kamen.
One of the main things that sets the LUKE arm apart from other prosthetics is its control system. Instead of traditional prosthetics that are typically controlled by buttons or switches, the LUKE arm places electrodes on the residual limb that pick up electrical signals from the user’s muscles, similar to mind-controlled technology. If the user flexes or tenses his or her arm, LUKE acts accordingly and changes its position and grip. The result is a prosthetic arm that moves intuitively and easily with the user as a true extension of their current limb. There are also other ways to control the arm, including a separate control system that controls LUKE with wireless sensors from the user’s shoe.
Aside from its far superior controls, the LUKE arm is also more powerful and flexible than any other prosthetic device on the market. The shoulder, elbow, and wrist are all individually powered, which allows the user greater flexibility and control, including the ability for users to reach over their heads and behind their backs. Extra power in the elbow also provides the arm with extra strength, enough that the user could perform everyday tasks like lifting a bag of groceries.
Because there are four independent motors in the hand, users also have increased fine motor skills, including the ability to securely grip objects of all sizes, from a glass of water to a single egg or a gallon of milk without spilling. It also makes tasks like brushing their teeth or picking up a grape far easier than with other prosthetics. The fingers also include innovative force sensors so users can know how hard they are gripping an item. The LUKE arm allows users to make multiple movements simultaneously and aims to create as normal of movements as a natural arm.
LUKE is built to last and offers protection from water and dust so users can use the arm in a number of indoor and outdoor conditions without worrying about the integrity of the device.
Cost and Accessibility
With such an advanced and industry-leading object inevitably comes a high price. While the official price has not been released by LUKE’s creators, some medical supply companies are estimating that the cost of a LUKE arm could be well above $100,000. The system comes as a complete set, which creators hope will alleviate compatibility issues between joints or aspects of the device.
There is certainly demand for a well-developed prosthetic arm. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every day at least 500 people in the U.S. lose a limb. There is also a huge demand for good prosthetics for soldiers and veterans. DEKA first earned DARPA funding to develop a prosthetic to benefit wounded combat veterans at the request of the Department of Defense. According to Kamen, creating a usable and advanced prosthetic is the least he can do to help veterans who have sacrificed for their countries.
But just because the LUKE arm will be commercially available doesn’t mean everyone will be able to get one, regardless of the price. Mobius Bionics is currently accepting names of people who are interested in owning one of the first LUKE arms. The arm won’t be available until late 2016.
Other companies and researchers around the world are developing prosthetics similar to LUKE. As LUKE and other similar products come to market, amputees of all kinds will be able to regain their mobility and independence, and perhaps even feel like a Jedi while they’re at it.