Robot Ankle Improves Life for Amputees


By Brian Huse, Director, Marketing & PR, Robotic Industries Association

What would inspire an elite mountain climber to invent a robotic ankle? If you guessed a climbing accident you’d be about right. Now an MIT professor and entrepreneur, Dr. Hugh Herr uses the same energy and mental focus it takes to scale a 55-degree, 600-foot sheet of ice to feed his drive to develop a better prostheses.

Amputees expend more energy than their able-bodied counterparts to do the same thing, and even though artificial limbs have improved significantly in recent years, the impact of these devices on the body is still severe. This is something Dr. Herr knows first hand. Both legs were amputated below the knee after an incident on Mount Washington in New Hampshire.

Only 17 at the time but already a climbing legend, Herr and a friend ran into bad weather and had to abandon their trek up Mount Washington. Several days of exposure in sub-zero temperatures left them nearly dead, and although rescued in time to save their lives the cold ravaged their legs. Herr’s life as a climbing prodigy was over. Or was it?

Artificial legs have been around long enough to be good, but Dr. Herr thought they could be much better. He continued to climb using artificial limbs he devised, and he eventually found his way into academia where he could continue his research and development. Dr. Herr of the MIT Media Lab is now the founder of iWalk Inc. which gained early funding from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Robotic ankle and foot from iWalk.

PowerFoot One, the world's first actively powered prosthetic ankle and foot.

His robotic ankle and foot is said to mimic the action of a biological leg and “for the first time, provides transtibial amputees with a natural gait.”1 Dr. Herr not only wants to return amputees to “normal,” but even augment them and make them better. Thanks to General Catalyst Partners and WFD Ventures LLC, he now has more than $20 million in new funding to commercialize his technology.

Another project of Dr. Herr’s is something he calls a Power-Boot. This is described as an exoskeletal device that might be seen in civilian life for cases of amputation above the knee or in the military to help able-bodied soldiers carry heavier loads further.2

Work like this reminds us that robotic technology continues to make inroads into our lives and even improve the lot of those who have lost limbs.

1 Source: Wikipedia, Hugh Herr
2 Source: Boston Magazine, “Best Foot Forward,” March 2009

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