Army partnership gives bionic foot a leg up
Jul 04, 2010 (The Frederick News-Post - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- The Army is developing advanced bionic feet, thanks to a partnership between Fort Detrick and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
The newest version of the Army's bionic foot helped a below-the-knee amputee run at 8 mph on a treadmill. That's the fastest ever for a robotic foot, and the West Point students working on the project have bigger plans for the next version of the foot.
The Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center at Fort Detrick funds the research project, which Lt. Col. Joseph Hitt conducts at West Point. Hitt had worked with another researcher a few years ago to develop a prosthetic ankle, now being manufactured by Spring Active. Hitt brought the device to West Point, where his students enabled it to run and this coming school year plan to make it easier to use.
"Our goals are to conduct an Army Physical Fitness Test -- our main goal is to have a soldier who is a lower-limb amputee, we want him to return to his job that he did before," said Cadet Elijah Bales, a West Point senior who will work on the project with five others this year.
"If you can do an APFT right now, you're cleared to do whatever in the infantry. So if you can do (the test) with a prosthetic, why can't you do the same things" as other soldiers, Bales said.
As part of the partnership, TATRC invited Bales to Maryland for a month-long internship this summer. Bales observed the research team last year and is drafting new designs to make the bionic foot lighter, more stable and more customizable.
To help improve the device, TATRC portfolio manager Troy Turner is spending the month taking Bales to Walter Reed Army Medical Center to talk to amputees and health care professionals about what improvements they'd like to see in prosthetics, as well as historical sites to learn more about the last 150 years of prosthetics research. Bales and Turner also plan to meet with other prosthetic researchers at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland.
The partnership may only last one more year, since Hitt will leave West Point at the end of the school year and no one else has stepped up to lead the program. Turner said TATRC would find a way to continue advancing the bionic foot, either with the military academy or a private company, but he said he hopes the school can find a way to continue the student program.
"One of the things that just impresses the heck out of me is that they have these 20-, 21-year-olds working on these things and making the advances that they are, whereas in most cases you have people who have decades of experience of research in a field doing the same thing," Turner said.
The technology is impressive. Turner said the device, which relies on springs and two motors, "essentially is a robotic calf muscle." It propels the leg forward instead of forcing the amputee to drag it along, which can cause lower back problems.
Though Bales and his team won't be able to finish the product this year -- it needs a rugged outer casing and a lightweight battery before it becomes practical for battlefield use -- they have big plans. Last year's bionic foot was 12 pounds, which amputees say is too heavy. The prosthetic is down to 5 pounds and may get even lighter.
They're also adding side-to-side flexibility, making the foot more stable on rocky or uneven surfaces.
The motorized part, which distinguishes this device from traditional passive prosthetics, will be removable in the upcoming version. The quick change from a robotic foot to a passive one is convenient not only if the battery dies, but also for walking around the house or office.
"If you're sitting at home and going to the bathroom, you don't necessarily need to run to the bathroom or have an active prosthetic to get 10 feet down the hall," Bales said. "So you don't need to have 5 pounds on your foot if you could just have 2 pounds. It's a lot more user-friendly than the past couple designs, and it gives the patient a lot more options." Turner said it's impossible to tell where the project is going and what a final, commercially available product might look like. But he promised it would be as functional as possible for the wounded warriors who deserve an easier time getting around.
"We don't allow our funded researchers to create and invent in a vacuum," he said, adding that the end users watch the progress of TATRC-funded projects and give input, in contrast to most research organizations.
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