21 December 2009

SPARKy the robotic ankle

Following last week's story about exciting new improvements to prosthetic knees comes news of another breakthrough technology - SPARKy, the robotic ankle:

[Arizona State University professor Thomas] Sugar and his ASU team have been working with the Military Amputee Research Program at Walter Reed Army Medical Center to develop a technology called Spring Ankle with Regenerative Kinetics, nicknamed SPARKy after the ASU Sun Devil mascot.

They believe they are close to perfecting it.

Sugar says the device is one of a kind because it uses lightweight energy-storing springs to provide a flex that traditional devices just can't give.

"About 1,000 servicemen and women have had below-the-knee-amputations in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and every year about 100,000 diabetics have the same amputation," said Sugar, an engineering professor based at ASU's Polytechnic campus in Mesa. "We believe this device could mean a different life for many of those people."

The shortcomings of current prosthetics are numerous because the mechanics are "largely passive," Sugar said.

Amputees use 20 to 30 percent more energy than able-bodied people just to walk. Their gait is uneven because they must swing their hips to propel their prosthetics. When they're climbing stairs or even walking backward, the challenges increase.

But SPARKy's technology is radically different because it relies on a "robotic tendon" that stretches with each step, generating energy stored in a small motor in the ankle.

"I would hope that by three years from now there would be at least several hundred new users a year and it would allow more and more people to enjoy effortless walking - taking long walks in the park, walking their dog.

"The everyday things that are your life."

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