Science of Star Wars: Bionics & Prosthetics

Perhaps the most amazing science-fiction element to Star Wars was when Luke Skywalker received a prosthetic hand at the end of The Empire Strikes Back. As we came to see, losing limbs is not uncommon for people who play around with Lightsabers.

Severe amputation is a common theme in the Star Wars Saga.  The most significant case being that of Anakin Skywalker losing all of his (remaining) limbs in the epic battle with Obiwan Kenobi.  The most poetic is when Luke Skywalker loses his hand in his first fight with Vader.  But these physical losses aren’t a sentence to a life without limbs.  Technology gave them the opportunity to continue their (vile or heroic) lives.

Prosthetics are a particularly challenging technology to get right.  Building a joint to replace the human body has been incredibly challenging.  In particular, there are three dimensions that science has been attacking to make prosthetics more viable for their users: complexity, functionality, and cost.

There are three focus areas that correspond to these varying objectives.

 

Complexity: 3D Printing

No two people are the same.  This variability has forced the prosthetic industry to have to adopt various forms of customization to serve patients.  3D printing, however, has changed this equation.  3D printing allows for custom-made prosthetics to be fashioned for each individual based on their body measurements.

If you don’t know already, 3D printing is an additive manufacturing process where an object (sometimes quite complex) can be fashioned by depositing material one layer at a time until it is completely constructed.  If you can think of any object as a series of “slices” each “slice” would be deposited upon the next layer sequentially.  This offers the benefit of being able to design an object using software – perhaps incorporating measurements or scan data.  This means a design can be designed printed, tested and updated in short duration.

Photo via NYTimes.com

 

Children in particular have benefited from this technology.  Their bodies are all vary different and change often.  So having an accessible, printable, and updatable prosthetic design changes the opportunities they’ll  undertake for their lives.  This NYTimes article describes some of the types of resources that have been created to offer these types of advanced prosthetics for children.

 

 

Functionality: Bionics

Bionics represent the final frontier in augmented human physicality.  Bionics refer to mechanical and electrical systems that work to mimic and augment the human body.  There’s a tremendous amount of research into this field and great successes have been made.  There are a number of end research objectives including augmenting normal behaviors – everything from “normal” walking and holding objects to augmenting physical strength and speed (a la exoskeletons).  Though they sound like very pedestrian (no pun intended) goals, they are very complex and challenging technical problems.  Human limb movements are very complex and subtle in nature and require a sophisticated perspective on integrating hardware, software, and electrical systems to mimic them.

Some of this research is absolutely mind blowing and inspirational.  In fact, if this research bears out, something far more interesting than Boba Fett could be possible IRL.

Here are some presentations introducing some of this research.

 

Bionic Limbs

 

Exoskeletons

 

 

Cost Reduction

One other area of interest is in the reduction of cost for prosthetics.  While 3D printing represents a great cost mitigation opportunity and Bionics are…awesome…, they remains out of reach for much of the developing world who lives on less than $2 per day.  Only a very aggressive cost mitigation strategy can meet the needs of these people.  I’m afraid there isn’t a lot of focus and development in this area, there is one organization (who employs friends and colleagues of mine) that does.  D-Rev was founded to develop affordable healthcare technologies for the developing world.  It’s focus is not one of charity – their objective is to use the same innovation and market forces as any other business but to meet the needs of a population with a different buying power.

One of their key developments have been a cheap hinge that can serve as a prosthetic knee for people who have lost legs through various cases of trauma, disease, or natural disasters.  Here is a brief introduction to their work:

 

Although there’s a lot of room to grow for prosthetics, the future actually looks very much like, or perhaps better than what we’ve seen in Star Wars.

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