There are nearly 2 million people living with limb loss in the United States, and according to statistics from the Amputee Coalition, approximately 185,000 new amputations occur in the United States each year. That’s a pretty significant number, but thankfully, prosthetic limb technology has been improving in leaps and bounds over the past few years.
Thing is, while prosthetic limbs designed for arm/hand amputees have seen rapid advancement as of late, prosthetics for leg/foot amputees have been lagging behind somewhat. Most of the prosthetic systems built to replace a lost leg currently rely on mechanical actuators — they’ve got to be moved in a certain way in order to produce the desired effect. The problem with them is that they are not integrated with the body and therefore the wearer can’t always execute the movement they’d like to. This can be a problem — especially during activities like climbing stairs, traversing unusual terrain, and anything that requires very precise motion.
To help remedy this problem, researchers at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago have recently developed a new kind of bionic prosthetic leg that understands the intentions of the wearer and automatically adjusts its motions according to both how and where the person is walking.
The system relies on a technology called electromyography (EMG) — a sensing technique that can read muscle activity with small electrical signals. This new limb technology basically involves placing EMG sensors on the leg, which then gather signals. These signals are then fed into a computer that analyses the wearer’s muscle activity and deduces their intentions. Since the signals come from the very muscles that a wearer uses to move the bionic prosthetic leg, the prosthetic leg executes the same movement the user would naturally make. To make it even more accurate, the system also uses pattern recognition algorithms to predict the wearer’s next move, and adjusts accordingly to produce the kind of step they want.
The limb is still in the very early stages of development at this point, so while this kind of technology probably won’t be ready for primetime anytime soon, it’s definitely exciting to see this kind of progress. In a few years time, brain and muscle-sensing prosthetics will hopefully become the norm — and maybe even pave the way for those crazy bionic exoskeletons that we’ve all been waiting for.