My brief experiences with DARPA led me to believe they were a very forward-thinking group, with the sharp minds and big pockets necessary to back ideas that may not pay dividends for decades.
So it was with some surprise that I read (via Gizmodo and Defense Tech) that DARPA is challenging scientists to create a fully functional prosthetic arm in four years.
It is understood that research in many areas will be required in order to reach the ultimate goal. These research areas may include, but are not limited to: neural control, sensory input, advanced mechanics and actuators, and prosthesis design and integration. Achievement of program milestones/metrics will demand prompt identification of areas requiring further research and rapid incorporation of advancements made in these areas into the prosthetic device. Because of the need to quickly and safely incorporate new technologies into the final product for IND submission, successful proposals will contain an assessment/analysis of the current “state of the art” in the field of upper extremity prosthetics along with a clear statement of the integrated vision for this effort. Offerors must detail the critical components of a “revolutionary prosthesis” and address how their collective team will achieve those challenges.
DARPA considers the ability to provide neural control to the prosthesis to be essential to achieving the desired outcome of restoring full motor and sensory capabilities. There has been recent success supported by DARPA and others in collecting signals from the motor cortex and/or other regions of the brain and using them to control robotic devices. It may also be possible to develop interfaces with the peripheral nervous system that provide an efferent and afferent signaling connection with the prosthesis, though this is less well demonstrated. Proposers must support their selected control system(s) in terms of existing capabilities and promise; however, proposals that do not utilize neural control as a significant mechanism for controlling the prosthetic are not of interest.
I commend them for their ambition. Advanced prosthetics are needed now more than ever, due to advances in battlefield resuscitation and changes in the way war is waged. And with recent lab breakthroughs in neural processing and device manipulation, DARPA’s challenge might move the focus to clinical trials and bedside application. Whether it’s the right stimulus at the right time, or irresponsible optimism, I’ll bet there are a lot of hopeful veterans today.
More at DARPA’s Defense Science Office…