Light bridges the communication gap between man and machine

The monthly science magazine Popular Science covered the research of SMU engineers Marc Christensen and Volkan Otugen who are working to develop technology that will someday help amputees have “feeling” in their artificial limbs.

The research is funded through a $5.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Defense and industry for a center led by SMU’s Lyle School of Engineering. The goal is to develop revolutionary technology for advanced prosthetic limbs that will help amputees returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Two-way fiber optic communication between prosthetic limbs and peripheral nerves will be key to operating realistic robotic arms, legs and hands that not only move like the real thing, but also “feel” sensations like pressure and heat.

Popular Science’s coverage is in the March issue: “Talk to the hand: A new interface for bionic limbs.”

Read the full story.


By Morgen Peck
Popular Science

The Six Million Dollar Man’s robotic arm worked as seamlessly as his natural one. But in the real world, robotic limbs have limited motions and the user can’t feel what he or she is “touching.” a new approach using optical fibers implanted around nerves could transmit more data and let prosthetics speak to the brain.

Previously, scientists surgically connected electrodes to the nervous system, but they seemed to harm the body’s tissues, making the implant fail within months. In 2005, scientists discovered that they could stimulate a neuron to send a message by shining infrared light on it. Last September, DARPA, the Pentagon’s R&D branch, awarded $4 million to a project led by Southern Methodist University engineers to attempt to connect nerves to artificial limbs using fiber optics.

The team suspects that flexible glass or polymer fiber optics will be more flesh-friendly than rigid electrodes. In addition, optical fibers transmit several signals at once, carrying 10 times as much data as their electrical counterparts. “Our goal is to do for neural interfaces what fiber optics did for the telecom industry,” says electrical engineer Marc Christensen, who is leading the SMU group. Transmitting more information faster should give bionic limbs more lifelike movements.

Talk to the hand: A new interface for bionic limbs.