Last time we reported on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), they were collaborating with neuroscientists to allow a quadriplegic woman to control a robotic arm. That isn’t all they’ve been up to though, as evidenced by newly released information on DARPA’s Reliable Neural-Interface Technology (RE-NET) program.Unlike the previously mentioned research (geared towards those who are paralyzed), these latest innovations aim to allow natural movement and sensation in replacement prosthetic limbs.
The first piece of tech innovation DARPA is showing off is not so new, being the latest stage in a longline of prosthetic limbs that pick up on the activity of severed nerves and translate it into movement. Called targeted muscle re-innervation (TMR), it requires surgery to re-route nerves from the severed limb into nearby muscle (in arms, often shoulder or pectoral muscle) where the signal is picked up by electrodes on the skin.
As evidenced by the video below, the technology has come a long way towards lifelike movement since it’s inception.
Unfortunately, no matter how elaborate the method of control, it is very hard (maybe even impossible?) to enable natural movement in a prosthetic without sensory feedback. Researchers sponsored by DARPA have been experimenting with a new flat interface nerve electrode (FINE) system to restore fingertip sensation, allowing an amputee to use their powered prosthetic hand without having to look.
It will be a long time yet before prosthetic limbs, even cutting edge ones, become as dexterous and robustly usable as a natural human arm. Projects like these may be just as important for their role in garnering public attention/support as the technical advances in and of themselves. And however many technical innovations are being reported, it is entirely possible there are an equal or greater number being kept under wraps. This is DARPA we’re talking about, after all.