MIT News has a great profile on Hugh Herr and his incredible work on bionics.
These days, Hugh Herr, an associate professor of media arts and sciences at MIT, gets about 100 emails daily from people across the world interested in his bionic limbs.
Messages pour in from amputees seeking prostheses and from media outlets pursuing interviews. Then there are students looking to join Herr’s research group. “The technology inspires young people to get into the field, which is wonderful,” Herr says.
It’s a mark of the groundbreaking work Herr has done at the MIT Media Lab over the past two decades. An amputee himself, Herr has been designing (and wearing) bionic leg prostheses that, he says, “emulate nature” — mimicking the functions and power of biological knees, ankles, and calves.
Last month, Herr’s TED talk made headlines, as Adrianne Haslet-Davis, a professional dancer whose leg was partially amputated after the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, used one of his prostheses to rumba on stage.
Most of these prostheses have reached the world through Herr’s startup, BiOM (originally called iWalk). Since 2010, the company has brought the world’s first bionic foot-and-calf system to more than 900 patients worldwide, including some 400 war veterans.
“It’s always good to design something people will use. It’s great to do the science, yes, but it’s also great to see humanity using something that one has invented,” Herr says, adding: “Translating technology out of the lab keeps engineers honest.”
Initially developed by Herr’s research group, BiOM’s prosthesis, dubbed the BiOM T2 System, simulates a biological ankle (and connected calf muscle), delivering a “natural ankle function” during strides.
Using battery-powered “bionic propulsion,” two microprocessors and six environmental sensors adjust ankle stiffness, power, position, and damping thousands of times per second, at two major positions: First, at heel strike, the system controls the ankle’s stiffness to absorb shock and thrust the tibia forward. Then, algorithms generate fluctuating power, depending on terrain, to propel a wearer up and forward.
When fitting the prosthesis to patients, prosthetists can program appropriate stiffness and power throughout all the stages of a gait, using software created by Herr’s group — a process the company calls “Personal Bionic Tuning.”
Among other things, the system restores natural gait, balance, and speed; lowers joint stress; and drastically lowers the time required to acclimate to the prosthesis (which can take weeks or months with conventional models). “Often, within minutes, a patient is walking around, even running around,” says Herr, BiOM’s chief technology officer.
The system, Herr says, could also help prevent osteoarthritis, a joint condition caused by age and leg strain, by providing calf and ankle power and support even in old age.
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