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Reaching for robotic arm improvements

Nov 2010
Laura S. Marshall,

The bionic implants in The Six Million Dollar Man might not be a reality anytime soon, but a nearly $6 million neurophotonics center is working on it. And fiber optics could be the key to robotic arm prostheses that would make Steve Austin proud.

Two-way fiber optic communication between prosthetic limbs and peripheral nerves – which could enable the operation of robotic hands, arms and legs with realistic movements and the ability to “feel” heat and pressure – are in development at the Neurophotonics Research Center at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas.

DARPA recently provided $5.6 million in funding for the center as part of its Centers in Integrated Photonics Engineering Research project, also known as CIPhER, the goal of which is to improve quality of life for military amputees returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But amputees aren’t the only ones who could benefit from the fiber optic connection. “This technology has the potential to patch the spinal cord above and below a spinal injury,” said Marc Christensen, center director and electrical engineering chairman in SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering. “Someday, we will get there.” Implants for tremor control and chronic pain management are other future applications envisioned by the researchers.

The link in development would be compatible with living tissue in a way experimental metal nerve interfaces are not; being fiber optic, it would run no risk of rejection or destruction by the immune system. It could contain hundreds or thousands of sensors in a single fiber.

“Team members have been developing the individual pieces of the solution over the past few years, but with this new federal funding, we are able to push the technology forward into an integrated system that works at the cellular level,” Christensen said. Besides SMU, the team includes researchers at Vanderbilt University, Case Western Reserve University, the University of Texas at Dallas and the University of North Texas. Industrial partners include Lockheed Martin (Aculight), Plexon, Texas Instruments, National Instruments and MRRA.

“Science-fiction writers have long imagined the day when the understanding and intuition of the human brain could be enhanced by the lightning speed of computing technologies,” said Dr. Geoffrey C. Orsak, dean of the Lyle School of Engineering. “With this remarkable research initiative, we are truly beginning a journey into the future that will provide immeasurable benefits to humanity.”

bionic implantsBiophotonicsdefensefiber opticsindustrialneurophotonicsPost Scriptsrobotic arm improvementsSensors & DetectorsThe Six Million Dollar Man

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