A life-like prosthetic arm, controlled directly by electric signals from existing muscles to allow natural movement, is on display in a video that has gone viral.
In the video released by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency -- better known as DARPA -- the DEKA arm, named for its inventor, Dean Kamen, and funded by DARPA, can be seen helping a former Army volunteer scale a climbing wall at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Although the arm in the video is an early version controlled by special movements of the wearer's foot, researchers are working to connect the arm to tissue in the chest to allow wearers to move it more naturally and control the grip strength of the arm's robotic hand.
It's all part of a DARPA program known at HAPTIX, for Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces, an effort to make the operations of prosthetic limbs as transparent for the user as possible.
DARPA has announced the awarding of contracts in the HAPTIX program to develop two-way interfaces for such robotic limbs that will allow wearers to use their brains and nervous system to control an arm intuitively, while receiving feedback about force and touch from sensors on the arm through those same channels.
DARPA has awarded funding to eight institutions to develop such "feeling" prosthetics.
"Sensory feedback, especially from the hand, is vitally important for many functions, and HAPTIX seeks to create a sensory experience so rich and vibrant that users would want to wear their prostheses full time," the agency said in a statement.
"By restoring sensory functions, HAPTIX also aims to reduce or eliminate phantom limb pain, which affects about 80 percent of amputees," it added.
The importance of DARPA's advanced prosthetics programs was emphasized by President Obama in his State of the Union address in January, when he said his administration is interested in "creating revolutionary prosthetics, so that a veteran who gave his arms for his country can play catch with his kids again."
The ultimate goal for HAPTIX, says DARPA program manager Doug Weber, "is to create a device that is safe, effective and reliable enough for use in everyday activities."
Scientists at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are working with DARPA to help develop standards for verifying safety of the new technology and quantifying its benefits, Weber says.