Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Bionic Men

The iWalk BiOM prosthetic ankle enables amputees to walk naturally and effortlessly. Photos courtesy of iWalk ENG alums help advance lifelike prosthetic leg A breakthrough robotics technology is enabling a growing number of amputees to walk naturally and effortlessly. In recent years, carbon fiber technology has made possible the production of lighter, stronger artificial limbs that provide increased mobility to injured soldiers, people with diabetes, and others with missing or impaired lower limbs. But moving about with a carbon fiber prosthetic can be like walking in sand: putting one foot in front of the other takes up to 50 percent more energy than that expended by people with natural limbs. That’s where a new prosthetic ankle, the BiOM by iWalk, Inc., commercially available since September 2011, comes in. Supplying that extra energy through batteries, motors, and springs, the 4.5-pound BiOM replicates the action of the foot, Achilles tendon, and calf muscles to provide powered plantar flexion, or push-off. Among the 60 iWalk employees who are shaping the future of bionic technology at the Bedford, Mass.–based start-up are three College of Engineering mechanical engineering alumni—Weston Smith (ENG’11), Josh Prescott (ENG’11), and Chris Park (ENG’11). They are part of iWalk’s effort to rebuild and restore natural motion from the ground up to potentially millions of affected individuals. Witnessing the transfer of iWalk’s technology to veterans and active-duty soldiers has been the greatest on-the-job reward, says Smith, who started working for the company as a quality engineer in October 2010. “It was neat to send our first commercial shipment of prosthetic ankles to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and be there to see people walk on them for the first time,” he says. Now working as a manufacturing engineer, Smith’s job is to improve the manufacturing process and incorporate design improvements into iWalk’s production line. It’s the job he set his sights on in 2009, when he was a lab technician without engineering credentials at a medical device company. With an undergraduate degree in visual arts and experience as a cabinetmaker and carpenter, he enrolled in ENG’s Late Entry Accelerated Program (LEAP), which permits nontraditional students and working professionals to obtain a graduate degree in engineering, as the ticket to his dream job. “I couldn’t find anything else like it in the country,” Smith recalls. “Having the chance to study engineering after having been on a different path helped me to be really flexible, which is what’s required here. It’s a small enough place that we all do a little bit of everything beyond our core engineering tasks, from writing marketing materials to delivering the product to customers.” Click here for more of the story

Friday, November 2, 2012

Amputee to climb stairs of Chicago skyscraper using thought-controlled bionic leg

By Associated Press, Published: October 31 CHICAGO — Zac Vawter considers himself a test pilot. After losing his right leg in a motorcycle accident, the 31-year-old software engineer signed up to become a research subject, helping to test a trailblazing prosthetic leg that’s controlled by his thoughts. He will put this groundbreaking bionic leg to the ultimate test Sunday when he attempts to climb 103 flights of stairs to the top of Chicago’s Willis Tower, one of the world’s tallest skyscrapers. If all goes well, he’ll make history with the bionic leg’s public debut. His whirring, robotic leg will respond to electrical impulses from muscles in his hamstring. Vawter will think, “Climb stairs,” and the motors, belts and chains in his leg will synchronize the movements of its ankle and knee. Vawter hopes to make it to the top in an hour, longer than it would’ve taken before his amputation, less time than it would take with his normal prosthetic leg — or, as he calls it, his “dumb” leg. A team of researchers will be cheering him on and noting the smart leg’s performance. When Vawter goes home to Yelm, Wash., where he lives with his wife and two children, the experimental leg will stay behind in Chicago. Researchers will continue to refine its steering. Taking it to the market is still years away. “Somewhere down the road, it will benefit me and I hope it will benefit a lot of other people as well,” Vawter said about the research at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Bionic — or thought-controlled — prosthetic arms have been available for a few years, thanks to pioneering work done at the Rehabilitation Institute. With leg amputees outnumbering people who’ve lost arms and hands, the Chicago researchers are focusing more on lower limbs. Safety is important. If a bionic hand fails, a person drops a glass of water. If a bionic leg fails, a person falls down stairs. The Willis Tower climb will be the bionic leg’s first test in the public eye, said lead researcher Levi Hargrove of the institute’s Center for Bionic Medicine. The climb, called “SkyRise Chicago,” is a fundraiser for the institute with about 2,700 people climbing. This is the first time the climb has played a role in the facility’s research. To prepare, Vawter and the scientists have spent hours adjusting the leg’s movements. On one recent day, 11 electrodes placed on the skin of Vawter’s thigh fed data to the bionic leg’s microcomputer. The researchers turned over the “steering” to Vawter. He kicked a soccer ball, walked around the room and climbed stairs. The researchers beamed. Vawter likes the bionic leg. Compared to his regular prosthetic, it’s more responsive and more fluid. As an engineer, he enjoys learning how the leg works. It started with surgery in 2009. When Vawter’s leg was amputated, a surgeon repositioned the residual spaghetti-like nerves that normally would carry signals to the lower leg and sewed them to new spots on his hamstring. That would allow Vawter one day to be able to use a bionic leg, even though the technology was years away. Continue with story by Clicking Here

Paralympic star Whitehead set for marathon across UK

October 30 - Britain's double leg-amputee athlete Richard Whitehead, who took gold in the 200 metre T42 final at the London 2012 Paralympics, plans to run from John O'Groats to Land's End to raise money for cancer charities. The 36-year-old from Nottingham shot to prominence when he claimed a memorable victory in the 200m in the Olympic Stadium in a world record of 24.38sec, adding the Paralympic title to the world title he won last year. But despite his stellar late career as a sprinter, Whitehead is actually predominantly a marathon runner with a best time of 2 hours 42min 52sec over 26.2 miles. He is now aiming to become the first double leg amputee to run from John O'Groats to Land's End not only raise thousands of pounds for cancer charities in memory of his friend, Simon Mellows, who died in 2005 after contracting a secondary cancer, but also to inspire people to take up sport. "I'm a marathon runner by trade and the marathon, as an event, is accessible for anybody to watch," Whitehead told BBC Sport. "It's on an open road and you can just come down and be part of it, so I felt a challenge like John O'Groats to Land's End would engage people up and down the country about what sport's all about, and maybe be an opportunity for them to run a little bit with me. "It's great being on television and in the media but meeting people is something you can't put a value on and that's when you can have that inspiration and positive impact on people's lives."
Richard Whitehead may be a Paralympic gold medal winning sprinter but considers himself to be predominantly a marathon runner The move comes after Whitehead's phenomenal transformation from a marathon runner to a sprinter, which came about after the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) said he could not race against arm amputees at the London 2012 Paralympics. After losing his appeal against the decision with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), Whitehead adapted his training to benefit his sprinting and gained 17 kilograms of muscle. But despite become the dominant force in the 200m T42, he admits he is still hopeful of competing in the marathon at the Rio Paralympics in 2016. "They [the IPC] are starting to put things into place," he said. "For me, it's been a long time coming. "They should look back at that ruling as a missed opportunity for them. "Sport, in some cases, is too political and they were trying to streamline athletics. "Sport is inclusive, not exclusive. "To run the marathon and 200m would be a one-off and reinforce my values that sport is not all about medals. "I'm obviously a strong athlete over 200m and I would like to retain my title in Rio. "The marathon, however, for me, is about opening up people's perceptions about what a person without any legs can actually do, and also overcoming obstacles and opening up opportunities for others. "It's not about being really successful in sport, it's about leaving that legacy." Contact the writer of this story at tom.degun@insidethegames.biz