The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved a prosthetic arm with the sort of capabilities long dreamed of in science fiction, from Star Wars to Terminator. The arm's designers claim it gives “near natural control that enhances independence and improves quality of life for amputees.”
The idea of an arm that would provide functions that match nature goes back centuries, and 3D printing has led to an explosion of almost DIY versions
No one would describe these as having the full capacity of an intact arm, however. The sort of fine control needed to transfer eggs without breaking them, as seen in the video above, would almost certainly be absent. Having seen all too many lost limbs while working in combat hospitals of Iraq and Afghanistan Dr Geoffrey Ling decided that the time was right for something like the replacement Luke Skywalker gets near the end of Star Wars 5. In 2006 Ling launched the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). It has taken less than eight years to win approval for commercial release.
The battery powered arm can be controlled in different ways depending on the needs of the users, including sensors attached to intact muscles further up the arm, or to the feet. Efforts to use direct brain control, similar to the system allowing a monkey to control another's brain
, are “promising” according to DAPRA.
The announcement did not come out of nowhere. Already 36 people have been fitted with test versions, but FDA approval was required before the arm could be marketed for its capacity to allow users to brush hair, operate a lock and key or prepare and eat food. Ling's product, officially named the Gen-3 Arm System but nicknamed the Luke Skywalker arm offered this to more than 90% of the people fitted with it.
DARPA are far from the only ones chasing the dream of restoring full utility to millions of amputees. UK firm Bebionic have their own version, although they drew their inspiration from James Cameron rather than George Lucas.
Footage of one of DARPA's earlier models can be seen below