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Double amputee controls two robotic arms with his mind

Mariella Moon, @mariella_moon
December 18, 2014
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Here's one other DARPA-funded robotic limb controlled by thoughts alone -- actually make that two, because Colorado man Les Baugh had two bionic arms attached from shoulder level. Baugh got them this summer, 40 years after losing both arms, as part of a Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program test run at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. The project's researchers have been developing these Modular Prosthetic Limbs (MPL) over the past decade, but they say Baugh is the "first bilateral shoulder-level amputee" to wear two MPLs at the same time. Unlike Jan Scheuermann who controlled a robotic arm with a pair of neural implants, though, Baugh had to undergo a procedure called targeted muscle reinnervation, which reassigned the nerves that once controlled his arms and hands.

Once that was done, the team recorded the patterns his brain makes for each muscle he moves, and then they had him control virtual arms to prepare for the real things. Since his arms were cut off from the shoulder, they also had to design a custom socket for his torso where the prosthetics can be attached. All their preparations were worth it in the end, though, as Baugh turned out to be a brilliant test subject: after just 10 days of training, he was already moving cups from one shelf to the other just by thinking it.

As Courtney Moran, one of the researchers, said:

We expected him to exceed performance compared to what he might achieve with conventional systems, but the speed with which he learned motions and the number of motions he was able to control in such a short period of time was far beyond expectation. What really was amazing, and was another major milestone with MPL control, was his ability to control a combination of motions across both arms at the same time. This was a first for simultaneous bimanual control.

Baugh can only use the arms in a lab setting at the moment, but the team aims to develop MPLs he can take home and use whenever he wants.

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