Les Baugh is a double amputee who lost both of his arms 40 years ago. Fortunately, researchers from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Maryland have fitted Baugh with two robotic arms that he can control using his mind.
What makes this one of the most newsworthy items of 2014 is the fact that Buagh is the “first bilateral shoulder-level amputee to wear two Modular Prosthetic Limbs (MPLs) at the same time.”
After decades of research, scientists have come far in developing sensors and software that can interpret the movement of our muscles and the electrical signals emitted from our brains and nerves. These movements and signals are then translated by these specialized sensors into actionable orders.
To help Bauch use his brain to control his bionic arms, he underwent a surgical procedure called targeted muscle reinnervation.
After the procedure was complete, which also involved fitting custom sockets into his shoulders to enable the attachment of his future prosthetics, researchers recorded the electrical patterns Baugh’s brain made whenever he was instructed to think about moving his muscles. Next, Baugh was trained on how to use his bionic arms with a complex pattern recognition system “that analyses the coordinated engagement of muscle groups and then translates it into instructions for controlling a prosthetic limb.”
Amazingly, after just 10 days of practice, Baugh was able to use his arms to move a variety of objects. According to Courtney Moran, one of the project’s researchers, “This task simulated activities that may commonly be faced in a day-to-day environment at home. This was significant because this is not possible with currently available prostheses. He was able to do this with only 10 days of training, which demonstrates the intuitive nature of the control.”
This also marks the first ever “simultaneous bimanual control” of prosthetics, which is the “ability to control a combination of motions across both arms at the same time.”
Although Baugh can only use his bionic arms within the laboratory setting, researchers are soon hoping he’ll be able to take them home for permanent use.