DARPA Is Working on Prosthetics That Will Let Amputees Feel Again


The techno wizards at the government’s Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) want upper-limb amputees to feel the sensation of touch again.

The Hand Proprioception and Touch Interfaces, or HAPTIX, the latest program in DARPA’s ongoing bid to improve prosthetic technologies for injured service members, is working to equip future prosthetics with a sense of touch.

In announcing the project, DARPA explained that despite the myriad improvements in prosthetics technologies in recent years, amputees still lack the sensation of touch. That not only means that wearers can’t feel things they touch with their prosthetics, they also have issues with limb positioning and movements.


If a touch sensor is also incorporated, amputees would be able to perform more fine-motor skills. Adding touch to a prosthetic device would make amputees more likely to wear the device. What’s more, the program is also seeking to eliminate so-called “phantom limb” pain, the painful sensations amputees can feel where their amputated limb once was.

In a statement posted to DARPA’s website, program manager Doug Weber said, “The ultimate goal for HAPTIX is to create a device that’s safe, effective, and reliable enough for everyday activities.”

This isn’t some pie-in-the-sky idea unlikely to come to fruition. DARPA is already working with several universities and laboratories to bring touch capabilities to prosthetics within the next four years, and it says it plans to “initiate take-home trials of complete, FDA-approved HAPTIX prosthesis systems within four years.”

Right now, DARPA researchers are working to create a virtual interface for HAPTIX before stepping up to actual prosthetics.

DARPA also recently showed off the fine-motor skills its prosthetics program has managed to reproduce in two new videos posted to YouTube. In the first video, an amputee uses a prosthetic device to grip and climb a rock wall.

A second clip shows two amputees performing a variety of tasks: using a spoon, picking up a grape, passing a ball to someone else wearing a prosthetic, and even grabbing on to a water bottle, something that is especially problematic, due to the fact that it is slippery, can deform to the pressure of touch, and contains a liquid.

With so many new advances in the field of prosthetics, the future is looking brighter for amputees.

Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley or on Google+ here.