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Segway inventor's 'Star Wars'-style robot arm gets go-ahead

Dean Kamen has since turned his mind to creating a revolutionary robotic arm that's now gained FDA approval.

Deka Arm System
The Deka arm can safely pick up delicate objects. DARPA

Dean Kamen's name conjures up images of the Segway and its self-balancing two-wheel design. Kamen hasn't been sitting around twiddling his thumbs since that famous invention came out. He and his team at Deka Research have been cranking away on new projects, one of which just got the FDA's thumbs-up to go to market.

The Deka Arm System is an impressive feat combining design, engineering, and technology. It uses electromyogram (EMG) electrodes to read signals sent by muscles near the attachment point of the robotic arm. It also uses wireless sensors mounted on the wearer's feet. Those signals are translated into complex movements that allow for much greater control than standard prosthetics.

The Deka arm runs on battery power and weighs about the same as a real arm. It has been given the affectionate nickname "Luke," in reference to Luke Skywalker's prosthetic hand in "Star Wars." If you recall, his replacement hand was every bit as capable as his original one.

The DARPA-funded arm has been in testing with 36 participants through a Department of Veterans Affairs study. The Food and Drug Administration notes, "The study found that approximately 90 percent of study participants were able to perform activities with the DEKA Arm System that they were not able to perform with their current prosthesis, such as using keys and locks, preparing food, feeding oneself, using zippers, and brushing and combing hair."

The project has been in development for nearly eight years. The FDA approval means Deka can move forward with exploring commercial opportunities. Pricing and availability have not yet been determined.