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The quest to create a bionic limb that anyone can build

Bionic prosthetics often cost upward of $100,000. But through the power of collaboration, engineers think they can build one for a tenth of that price.

If you wanted to cover a large distance and had the world’s best sprinters at your disposal, would you have them run against each other or work together in a relay? That, in essence, is the problem Elliott Rouse, a biomedical engineer and director of the Neurobionics Lab at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, has been grappling with for the best several years.

Rouse, an engineer, is one of many working to develop a control system for bionic legs, artificial limbs that use various signals from the wearer to act and move like biological limbs.

“Probably the biggest challenge to creating a robotic leg is the controller that’s involved, telling them what to do,” Rouse told Digital Trends. “Every time the wearer takes a step, a step needs to be initiated. And when they switch, the leg needs to know their activity has changed and move to accommodate that different activity. If it makes a mistake, the person could get very, very injured — perhaps falling down some stairs, for example. There are talented people around the world studying these control challenges. They invest years of their time and hundreds of thousands of dollars building a robotic leg. It’s the way things have been since this field began.”

Promoting collaboration

Only, according to Rouse, that’s a broken system. It’s understandable that competing high-tech firms hunker down in secrecy when they’re developing the Next Big Thing they hope will sell a gajillion units and add another few hundred billion dollars or more to their market cap. But it’s less understandable when research institutes waste brilliant minds by getting them to solve the same problems that other universities are solving as well. Heck, even once sworn enemies Apple and Google work…

Luke Dormehl

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