“The Bionic Man Who Builds Bionic People”

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The Story

“The Bionic Man Who Builds Bionic People”
by Adam Piore
Discover, January 2011

The Pitch

[Piore notes that this was his first pitch for Discover, though because he had worked with an editor there when he was at Newsweek, this pitch was less formal than it otherwise might have been.]

Let’s profile Hugh Herr, the double amputee MIT professor who is leading a technological revolution that may soon transform elderly stroke victims and limbless soldiers into bionic men and women.

Herr and his colleagues at the MIT Media Lab and Brown University are halfway through a 14- year research grant funded by the VA, developing advanced prosthetics. They’re exploring ways to connect artificial limbs directly to the nervous system and brain. They are building exoskeletons that allow stroke victims to walk normally, or soldiers to run while carrying heavy packs (could be a separate story). And they’re also developing computerized technology that allows prostheses to mimic the biometrics of the foot and knee.

There’s a lot of fascinating science here. And a lot of it is well beyond the theoretical stage. Later this year, Herr will begin selling the PowerFoot One, the world’s most advanced robotic ankle and foot. It’s equipped with three internal microprocessors and 12 sensors that measure force, inertia and position, and automatically adjusts the angle, stiffness and damping 500 times per second, employing the same kind of sensory feedback loop the human nervous system uses.

Herr himself has a fascinating story we can use to anchor the narrative. At 17, Herr lost both his legs 6 inches below the knees after he was caught in a snowstorm during a rock climbing trip (frostbite). He devoted the next 27 years of his life to finding a way to build new ones. Within six months of losing his feet, he was in a machine shop building new feet with skills he learned at a vocational high school. Eventually his drive helped him earn a master’s in mechanical engineering at MIT and a Ph.D. in biophysics at Harvard.

And this is a very timely story. Tens of thousands of soldiers are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan as amputees, and Herr is at the forefront of efforts to build them a new generation
of prosthetics… And he is about to debut one that is revolutionary. Through him we could explore the whole science of bionic prosthetics.

Herr has also been at the center of the debate over the use of prosthetics by Olympic athletes. He was one of the most prominent and vocal supporters of South African Olympic hopeful Oscar Pistorius, an amputee who critics tried to ban from competing because he was using “cheetah feet” prosthetics.

It’s a neat invention, which employs the same kind of senory feedback loops that the human nervous system uses. From what I have read, the PowerFoot is the only foot and ankle in the world that doesn’t depend on its wearer’s energy. The foot uses a system of passive springs and a half-pound rechargeable lithium iron phosphate battery, to provide the same 20-joule push off the ground that human muscles and tendons do, automatically adjusting to the walker’s speed.

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