Hugh Herr can phone his ankles.
An associate professor at the
MIT-Harvard Div. of Heath Sciences and Technology, he can do that because,
after losing his legs 28 years ago, he refused to accept the state of the art
in prosthetic technology.
"Sadly, most people with disabling
conditions are not well-served by technology," Herr says. "But I predict that
in the twilight years of this century, disabilities will be eliminated."
During a keynote speech at the
Freescale Technology Forum (FTF) yesterday, Herr rolled up his pant legs before
a crowd of more than a thousand engineers and bounded up and down the stairs of
the stage at the Grand Lakes Hotel in Orlando. That's an activity that might be
difficult for individuals with conventional prosthetic legs, as well as for
many with "normal" human legs.
But it's not hard for Herr. Using a
springy robotic ankle mechanism that would make Iron Man jealous, Herr has
developed an artificial joint like none that's ever existed.
"When I walk slowly, the computer
knows it," Herr says, ambling across the stage. "But when I go up, I get more
reflexive power because it knows I'm climbing the stairs."
His ankles are able to do that
because he's endowed them with biomechatronic components ó a motor, spring, lithium-ion
battery, 12 different sensors and five microcontrollers from Freescale Semiconductor Inc. To reprogram the
software in his ankles, he merely contacts their RF transceivers by phone. It's
the ultimate in artificial limbs, in some ways better than the originals.
Herr was motivated to design the
new limbs after frostbite rendered his legs useless below the knees following a
mountain climbing incident in 1982. After both legs were amputated, Herr's
engineering motivation went into high gear. He now looks for solutions to all
manner of disabilities, from brain and spinal cord injuries to limb
"From my experience, I realize that
technology has the ability to heal, to rehabilitate," he says.
Herr imagines a future where
individuals wear exoskeletons. He foresees a world in which robotic carpets and
furniture incorporate the ability to soften the blow when the elderly fall. He
predicts amputees will don robots and then control them with neural interfaces.
He even believes that robotic systems will enable commuters to run to work,
while barely breaking a sweat. Studies, he says, have proven that when the force
of gravity is reduced by 75 percent, the metabolic rates associated with
walking and running drop by 33 and 72 percent, respectively.
"We think that in the future, people
will wear robots when they walk or run," he says. "Why? To save their knees and
His company, IWalk, intends to fit robotic limbs to injured
soldiers returning from Afghanistan
Herr says the robotic limbs will enable the soldiers to enjoy a freedom of
movement that's remarkably close to what they had before being injured.
"I get calls from people who,
through injuries, have lost capabilities," Herr says. "They ask, 'Would it
benefit me to amputate my limb and use a robot?' Remarkably, the answer is more
and more a 'yes.'"
Some day, Herr says, the answer
will always be a resounding yes. To make that day a reality, though, he must keep
working and advancing the state of the art.
"A long time ago, conventional
wisdom would have said, 'Hugh, give up; accept the technology as it is,'" he
recalls. "But I'm not going to accept it as it is."