DARPA Airlegs for military mobility

It is often debatable whether all is fair or unfair in love and war. When it comes to the latter, the costs of war often require technology developers like DARPA to help the military and those we love. DARPA was created nearly 60 years ago under President Eisenhower’s administration as a part of the USA Department of Defense. Many of the technologies you use today, from smartphones to GPS and voice-to-text capabilities probably came from ideas from DARPA.

Few might recall that many of the basic principles of the internet were founded by a government agency for sharing information. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency or DARPA created the first computer-based web network to collect and share research from various centers under DARPA grants. One of their recent projects is Airlegs, that helps energize walking power for soldiers climbing extreme levels of terrain.

Many of the prosthetics and walking devices used by those with muscular dystrophy or multiple sclerosis, that are generally available today, may have been results of earlier DARPA research.

Ankle Foot Orthoses or AFO that are dynamic braces that assist those with weak ankle muscles may have originally been designed for use by veterans. Today, these are mechanical devices that help make walking easier for those that normally can’t. Without the use of AFO devices, many would only be using wheelchairs or mobility scooters. Those patients and health care professionals who are aware of AFO technologies may help some patients with ankle and lower leg muscular problems choose the option of walking at close-to-normal levels.

Of course DARPA primary focuses are catering to military excellence in the field and those that are casualties of war. Engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan have motivated the need to revolutionize upper-limb prosthetics for use by wounded veterans. The program, launched in 2006, has been designed to allow those with upper-leg and upper-arm problems to enjoy nearly normal mobilities and lives.

Mechanical lower extremity prosthetics have been available since World War II as shown in the movie Best Years of Our Lives. A Navy soldier was one of the actors and demonstrated his adroit capabilities with mechanical hands. Of course, those were bulky and heavy and required quite a bit of strength to wear. The dilemma with upper-limb prosthetics is facilitating weight balance and lower extremity control with a lightweight product.

The DEKA-3 is a result of DARPA development. This and other next step technologies are being commercially produced for use by patients in need.

DARPA pushes the leading edged of the sciences and often are society’s first encounter with the legal or ethical dilemmas that can be raised by new biological and engineering technologies. When considering these, the Department of Defense does need to integrate the necessities of USA interests along military usefulness.

Airlegs uses an exoskeletal backpack that generate air impulses that help normal soldiers walk faster, and better in rough conditions. As superheroes go, Harvard University (under a DARPA grant) developed an Exosuit that conforms to the body, allowing for natural joint movement while augmenting effectiveness in combat. Both these technologies may one day be beneficial to those suffering with incurable muscular-skeletal problems.

Somewhat lower in scale to Airlegs, there are numerous commercial devices available for neuromuscular disorders that use air to enhance mobility. People with foot injuries may benefit from AirCast that is a post-surgical cast that can be customized with air pockets for comfort and greater walk ability.

The WalkAide system uses electro-stimulation of nerves to help patients with nerve diseases like multiple sclerosis walk more naturally. It’s a fair and less cumbersome device to most AFO braces but does not influence those with muscular exclusive diseases.

Electrical stimulation therapy has been co-sponsored by Christopher Reeve and DARPA funding to help treat paralyzed patients as an aid for possible recovery or some mobility.

DARPA is not exclusive in setting these trickle-down technologies from military to public use. The National University of Singapore has been studying robotics as an aid to improve gait and walking abilities of patients under care of physiotherapists.

While many of these independent research projects and DARPA projects offer exciting reads, some succeed and some fail.

DARPA is intended primarily for defense technologies and the resulting products are intended for use by skilled soldiers. Some products derived from DARPA research grants do manage to trickle down for use by medical professionals and the general public. The internet was one of those DARPA projects! The efficacy of applying some of those technologies on wider samples may be difficult, while many promising projects fail in production.

Some limitations may stem from health insurance coverage restrictions or professionals with no education of newer methods at handling certain problems. It becomes more economic than practical.

Physiatrists, Orthotists and Prosthetists often work jointly in accessing and finding ways to help mobilize immobile medical patients. Some of the hardware come from archival DARPA studies. Because conditions vary from one patient to another, experimentation and therapy are necessary for adaptation to different individuals. “The evolution of orthosis and prosthetics is very promising,” says David Zwicker, a New York specialist. He adds, “Customizing these for each patients use is a must for performance.” As advanced as these appliances are, they aren’t always 100% perfect. Benefits and consequences partner in each design.

Of course, there are exceptions. There are wounded soldiers and athletes using DARPA-sponsored prosthetics that are so exceptional that they manage to compete in Paralympic games. The Paralympic Games are organized in parallel with the Olympic Games, while the IOC-recognized Special Olympics World Games include athletes with physical, sensory, and intellectual disabilities.

Perhaps the most famous (or infamous) of these is Oscar Pistorius. Although both of Pistorius’ legs were amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old, he has competed in events for single below-knee amputees and for able-bodied athletes. He competed in the 2012 Olympics. At his unfortunate criminal trial in 2013, he discussed how prosthesis evolved at such great levels that he was able to compete and win many Paralympic awards.

Zwicker concedes, “These are more exceptions than the average patients.” As a Myotonic dystrophy patient, using the Toe-Off AFO braces Zwicker recommended, my dynamic brace is indispensable as a walking tool. Sometimes they are like a balancing act and they stretch walking shoes beyond limits. Nonetheless, these braces allow a smooth (if slow) walk for someone with my degree of uncurable muscular ailment. The basic mechanics of the dynamic orthosis may have been introduced in earlier DARPA-funded experiments for wounded veterans.

More people resort to more orthodox, less challenging methods like wheelchairs, scooters, and walkers. I notice very few that recommended or prescribe dynamic braces. Thankfully, more children with neuromuscular development diseases find new technological tools that help them through their lives. Some have been adopted from DARPA products targeted for military use. Unfortunately, at this point, they are exceptions. They are the few fortunate ones.

Mobility devices make up only a small portion of DARPA sponsored research. Most go to weaponry, targeting, and reconnaissance. People are fortunate to inherit the by-products of some of these as available apps in smartphones and tablets.

According to the US Department of Labor, training and employment of Orthotists and Prosthetists is projected to grow 36 percent from 2012 to 2022, much faster than the average for all occupations. The large, aging baby-boom population will create a need for orthotists and Prosthetists, since both diabetes and cardiovascular disease, which are the two leading causes of limb loss, are more common among older people. In addition, new methods are likely to challenge this growing field as more people suffer from incurable immobilizing diseases.

When you see what may seem as inordinate government spending toward the military, realize that some of that money fuels DARPA research. You inherit some of the DARPA outcomes indirectly. Any transaction requires weighing benefits and consequences, DARPA funding sponsors at-the-edge research at many universities and labs that work toward advances of all kinds. There may be consequences. Yet, the next time you use GPS, the Internet, or a form of prosthesis, remember benefits often outweigh the consequences that may result through personal needs and interactive abuse.

Perhaps nothing is fair in war but being triumphant may be a necessary good or evil. Reaping other benefits from war-based research may indirectly help many. DARPA helps balance the scale.