This Star Wars Themed Robotic Arm can Move and Feel

The prosthetic named "LUKE" returns hand function through nerve stimulation

Aug 13, 2019

Prosthetics have come a long way since Captain Hook's hook hand. You can get 3-D printed hands, electronic hands, and now you can get Luke Skywalker themed robotic hands that can move and feel by your own thoughts.

Helping people who have lost hands or arms regain a sense of touch has been a major challenge even as prosthetics technology has advanced. But now, a team of researchers led by biomedical engineering associate professor Gregory Clark, Ph.D. from the University of Utah and Mobius Bionics, have developed the LUKE - which is short for Life Under Kinetic Evolution - that was inspired by the Star Wars character who lost his right hand in a battle with Darth Vader.

The LUKE arm, which was in development for 15 years, mimics the way a human hand feels objects by sending signals to the wearer's nerves. This works via peripheral nerve stimulation through an invention called the Utah Slanted Electrode Array, according to a study by the university.

The study was published in the July 24, 2019 edition of Science Robotics. The author's say that while this sense of touch is artificial, everything about how it is created is completely biological and created through the electrical signals of the brain.

“We changed the way we are sending that information to the brain so that it matches the human body. And by matching the human body, we were able to see improved benefits,” said co-author and biomedical engineering student Jacob George in the university's news release. “We’re making more biologically realistic signals.”

The electrode array is capable of sending signals to the brain for pain and temperature, too, but the team is focusing on touch. The arm is available in three lengths, but all are for people who lost limbs below the elbow, where the muscles that move the hand are located.

An amputee wearing the new prosthetic can sense the touch of something soft or hard and understand how to pick it up. Tests included wearers peeling bananas and picking up eggs without breaking them. These things were previously close to impossible for amputees wearing traditional prosthetics.

“It almost put me to tears,” Kevin Walgamott said about using the LUKE Arm for the first time during clinical tests in 2017. “It was really amazing. I never thought I would be able to feel in that hand again.” He lost his left hand and part of his arm in an electrical accident.

Besides creating the prototype of the LUKE arm, the team is also developing a completely portable unit that doesn't have to be wired to a computer. The goal is to connect wirelessly. The team hopes that the three test subjects will be able to take their arms home to use pending FDA approval.

Prosthetics like the LUKE may seem like they belong in futuristic movies like Star Wars, but they are part of a new universe of medical devices that are changing peoples' lives for the better.

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BONNIE RIVA RAS, EDITOR & WRITER
Bonnie Riva Ras has dedicated her life to promoting social justice. She loves to write about empowering women, helping children, educational innovations, and advocating for the environment & sustainability.