So how does this arm work?
The best comparison would be that it's like playing a hybrid video game that both detects your body's motion and uses a standard controller, too -- sort of like a Wii. "The arm is controlled by industry-standard sensors that prosthetists call EMG electrodes," explains Tom Doyon, a lead electrical engineer and project manager at DEKA Research who worked on the arm throughout its development. These sit near the muscles just above the place where the Luke Arm is attached, so that they can read the movements the person using the arm is initiating from that part of his or her body. The bionic arm works with your actual muscles, in other words, so that it turns when you turn.
But that's not all. "We also developed foot controls, where you wear a tiny sensor on the top of your foot so that you can control the arm from your feet as an optional input device," Doyon says. "You use your feet to tilt either left or right or forward or backward to control different aspects of the arm by moving your feet like a joystick."
These electrode and foot controls can be mixed and matched -- a "whatever works for you" kind of deal. "It's up to the prosthetist and the amputee to come up with the best mix of input methods to control the arm," Doyon adds. "We provide the most flexible system for them to work together to find out which control method works for each individual person." Crazy cool.
Amputees say it works, and it's about to become available
After DEKA and the Veterans Administration conducted a bunch of lab and home studies where nearly 100 amputees tested the Luke Arm in their daily lives, doing normal activities like eating, writing, turning pages, the invention accumulated over 11,000 hours of use and won FDA approval in 2014. DEKA got busy figuring out how to manufacture it at a non-ridiculous cost, and finally announced the commercial release of the arm this summer.
"They're currently working on final pricing and reimbursement strategies, and ways that people can pay for it," Doyon explains, no small feat for a device that took nearly a decade and $40 million to create. The idea is that funding will be available through different programs, depending on an amputee's situation. "It's not exclusively for veterans, it's for all amputees," he says, though it would obviously be nicer if so many veterans didn't need a bionic arm in the first place. "The team is very excited about designing something that can benefit this group of people that really needs to have such a technological advancement in this area."
Only 36 years after Luke Skywalker got his state-of-the-art prosthetic, the real world is catching up.