Here Comes the Bionic Man: Disabled People Will Benefit
By John M. Williams
In the mid-1970s, one of my favorite TV shows was The Bionic Man. Lee Majors starred as astronaut Steve Austin, the six million man. When Austin is severely injured in the crash of an experimental aircraft, he is “rebuilt” in an operation that costs six million dollars. His right arm, both legs and the left eye are replaced with "bionic" implants that enhance his strength, speed and vision far above human norms. For example, he ran at speeds of 60 mph, and his eye had a 20:1 zoom lens and infrared capabilities. His limbs had the equivalent power of a locomotive. He used his abilities to work for the Office of Scientific Intelligence as a secret agent.
In the fields of bionics and prosthetics, the six million dollar man is here – minus the superpowers.
I want to define bionics and prosthetics because they can mean the same thing to people and yet they are different.
Bionics is the technique of replacing a limb or body part by an artificial limb or part that is electronically or mechanically powered. A prosthetic is an artificial device used to replace a missing body part, such as a limb, tooth, eye, or heart valve.
Bionic engineer Jesse Watt says this about the differences between bionics and prosthetics, “The major difference between bionic and prosthetic is how they are powered.”
Today’s bionics will not allow users to run 60 miles an hour and rip off steal doors, etc. What’s important to the beneficiaries of either bionics or prosthetics is how the ever changing fields of bionics/prosthetics allow an amputee to think about their bionic/prosthesis as part of their normal body.
Recent advances in robotics technology make it possible to create prosthetics that can duplicate the natural movement of human legs. This capability promises to dramatically improve the mobility of lower-limb amputees, allowing them to negotiate stairs and slopes and uneven ground, significantly reducing their risk of falling as well as reducing stress on the rest of their bodies.
Prosthetics have improved so much that Zac Vawter walked up 2,000 steps with a bionic leg. He controlled his leg with his mind. Sending instructions from his brain, down through nerves that communicated with his mechanical limb.
In the world of prosthetics, this was a breakthrough moment. Previously, if leg amputees needed to climb the stairs, they’d either have to rely heavily on their good leg to propel them upwards or use a remote control that required them to stop and start at the base of each stair, which creates a movement that’s more robotic than human.
The Veterans Administration estimates two million Americans have had an arm or leg amputated from injury or illness. Many chose to wear prosthetic limbs. Ten years ago, most artificial arms and legs were clunky and fragile. But prosthetic technology has advanced significantly since then. A vast body of research gained from treating American soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan has led to robotic knees and ankles that adjust to terrain and activity. Leg amputees now run marathons, climb mountains and even skydive. A new bionic arm powered by the thoughts of the user allows the person to deal cards, tie shoelaces, use a spoon open up drawers and perform other hand movements, Elegs allow paraplegics to walk upright.
Newer technologies are making prosthetics more functional than ever before. The use of microprocessors and lighter materials has made the devices easier to use and maneuver. Prosthetics have long helped people regain the functionality of a lost limb. For example, the “Luke” is a robotic arm funded by Defense Advanced Research Agency, whose goal is restore functionality to individuals with upper extremity amputations. According to a spokesman for DARPA, research is still being done.
And prosthetics/bionics are available for just about every body part from legs and arms, to heart valves and breasts. There have been advancements in design that really help people function at a higher level.
Other advances include:
Myoelectric Technology −future robotic prosthetics will use myoelectric technology – “myo” denotes a relationship to muscle. Myoelectric prostheses are controlled by placing muscle sensors against the skin at the site of amputation. The electric signals generated by the muscle at an amputee’s stump controls a processor aboard the prosthetic. Myoelectric technology allows for greater control and precision in the prosthesis.
Targeted Muscle Reinnervation − amputees are in the infant stages of controlling prostheses directly with their minds. Through targeted muscle reinnervation, the nerves from the amputated limb are reenergized in a different part of the body, for example, the chest. When an amputee wants to use their prostheses in a particular fashion, he or she thinks the action, prompting the nerves in the chest to react. That reaction sends a message to a microprocessor in the robotic limb, which performs the action
Microprocessor Knees − with an onboard computer within the prosthesis, people with above-knee amputations have greater control over walking, stopping, and moving on inclines. These microprocessor knees analyze the pressure an amputee puts on the prosthesis. Also contained within the knee is a fluid control unit, which the microprocessor monitors to appropriate joint resistance when walking on inclines. Microprocessor knees have revolutionized safety and stability for people without knees.
As people with disabilities gain more access to bionics, their independence increases.