Honoring Veterans Through Innovation

High-technology is used extensively in military applications — we all know that. But it is also being used to improve the lives of veterans.

An example of this effort was shared by Dean Kamen, inventor and founder of DEKA Research and Development Corp., at a recent industry conference.

Kamen's company, DEKA, was asked by DARPA to develop a better prosthetic arm. In spite of the advancements made in robotics and rehabilitative technologies, prosthetic arms are largely non-functional and cosmetic, and those that are functional still use a hook as the primary grasping tool. Kamen wanted to develop a prosthetic that not only looked like an arm, but rotated, bent, and had the tactile capability of picking up a grape without breaking the skin. If you've ever seen any of the The Terminator movies, you've seen such an arm.

Men and women return from combat every day missing their limbs. Kamen and DEKA operated under the belief that it is not enough to replace arms and legs with a device that doesn't restore the kind of functionality soldiers had before being harmed in battle. The DEKA arm is incredible. It looks like a Terminator arm; it can be strapped on by a user and operated with very little training. It bends and flexes and has fingers that can pick up a dime. Kamen shared some video of a veteran using the arm for the first time. It is the most amazing thing I have seen outside of a science fiction movie.

Most importantly, the arm was developed first and foremost with the user in mind. Kamen's measurement of success: Using the arm, a combat veteran was able to feed himself for the first time in 12 years.

I'm not sure how these prosthetics are being funded or even if they are available. DEKA ran in to some regulatory issues with the FDA, but that's a story for another time. It's the effort that is inspiring: enabling individuals to do the things that we all take for granted (dressing ourselves, feeding ourselves, getting a drinking glass off of a shelf).

Giving back to people what they lost in service to our country should be the very least we can do. That's not easily accomplished, and I understand many of the reasons why. But as long as we continue to work toward that goal, we are honoring our veterans, in a small way, through innovation and invention. Let us know your thoughts on the message boards.

23 comments on “Honoring Veterans Through Innovation

  1. Nemos
    November 12, 2011

    enabling individuals to do the things that we all take for granted (dressing ourselves, feeding ourselves, getting a drinking glass off of a shelf)”

    I checked the DEKA site and the picture it is really impressive as you mentioned. During my trips through Europe I have seen a lot of people that missing and an arm or a leg. To make those people with this kind of disabilities to regain their losses will be for them the biggest gift.

  2. _hm
    November 12, 2011

    This really is wonderful idea. More defence contractors should carry out similar research activities. I would like to read more success stories. How can common person can get involved?

  3. saranyatil
    November 13, 2011

    I am just so happy to read this article. I think we need to take part in such innovations where we will be helping our soldiers and many kids who are born with some abnormalities.

    This initiative should be taken up by many companies as CSR and help many people who need such kind of help.

    These arms will be a great relief for the veterans as they can lead a normal life.

  4. mfbertozzi
    November 13, 2011

    It is absolutely an incredible step forward, as preliminary feeling I really aim the innovation won't remain as an experiment for a restricted number of people. I am convinced DARPA should provide a vey deep educational program for specialized doctors involved in taking care of people from Army, unfortunately, faced similar events. Has anyone hear about similar program?

  5. Tim Votapka
    November 13, 2011

    Another great development that incorporated electronics is the C-Leg. From what I understand it is a microprocessor-based limb that restores the user's tactile interaction w/ the ground surface they're contacting while walking or running.


  6. Daniel
    November 13, 2011

    Barbara, most of the advance technology developments are happening in Military and Defence labs. I think now a day they are sharing such technologies in a private-public partnership manner for the civilian advancement. For example, the light weight metals developed for military purpose are now a day’s using to make artificial limbs, food and dressing habits of military peoples in high altitude areas are also sharing with the civilians in similar areas.

  7. Parser
    November 13, 2011

    Yes, these technologies also help car accident and earthquake victims. I know that DARPA has grants for many research programs and I am wondering if there are any tax incentives for comapnies producing these type of equipment.  

  8. Jay_Bond
    November 14, 2011

    I think it is great to start seeing these types of prosthetics in real life applications and not just in the movies. I think the soldiers who protect our country deserve the best. The biggest hurdle we are going to see is cost. As great as these devices are, there are too many insurance companies not willing to pay for them, and most advanced prosthetics are too expensive for the individuals to buy on their own.

  9. tioluwa
    November 14, 2011

    The truth is prosthetics are not new, but like Barbara rightly said “its the effort that is inspiring”

    This is not just research for the fun of it, or for the gain of it, but for the impact it would make. Reminds me of one of last year's CNN heros who was building custom homes for US veterans, specially designed to meet each one's unique disability.

  10. screenwriter
    November 14, 2011

    I attended the ECIA Conference in Chicago 2 weeks ago and saw the Dean Kamen presentation that Barbara is referencing. Mr Kamen spoke for 90 miniutes about a myriad of topics. The prosthetic limbs were the most amazing things I had ever personally seen and when his presentation was done, 300 Industry Execs stood in unison and cheered loud and long.Every returning  veteran  who needs a prosthetic should receive these immediately upon return from combat.

    Mr Kamen said that these prosthetics cost $250,000 each and the US Government was “allowing” $100,000 and that right now there were 34 combat veterans in need of replacement limbs but that he was building them anyway.

    That we, as a society can raise $1Billion to build a sports arena but  cant “scrape” together $5mil to replace limbs for combat vets to help them live their lives with some sense of normalcy is disgraceful.


  11. mfbertozzi
    November 15, 2011

    It is a great update Tvotapka, I am wondering how many specialized doctors, across the worldk, are aware of these kind of steps ahead that technology is bringing on the ground. In my opinion, it isn't a low priority point and maybe actions for promoting and scheduling educational sessions for training doctors about, could be launched exactly by those manufacturers.

    November 15, 2011

    I read your article with interest.  I feel very sorry for those veterans injured whilst doing a very difficult job in really tough surroundings.  I am glad to hear that technology can be harnessed to make the life of a vet a little easier after they leave service.

  13. Tim Votapka
    November 15, 2011

    The technology is out there. Another one I had heard about involved a robotic foot. It was invented by double amputee Hugh Herr, director of biomechatronics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with funding from the VA Dept and the Army's Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center.

  14. bolaji ojo
    November 15, 2011

    @Tvotapka, These technology products you pointed out and which Barbara also noted are only a few of the innovations available to veterans. There are many more devices and other technology developments, including drugs and advances in medical care, that veterans and others are using nowadays. As Barbara noted, the least we can do is ensure these are available at affordable costs to people we involve in wars.

  15. Mr. Roques
    November 15, 2011

    Thanks for the link! Amazing stuff.

    Regarding the legal issues with the FDA, I thought the Army got away with more stuff than others (regarding FDA approval). Don't they?

  16. Anne
    November 15, 2011

    The DEKA technology is a very good invention giving back hope and life to the veterans but the big issue is the availability and affordability.

  17. Taimoor Zubar
    November 15, 2011

    Besides artificial limbs, I think the electronics industry has a lot to give to the veterans in terms of innovation. Domestic robots is one popular category of robots which are designed to assist people in their everyday lives at home. This ranges from cleaning and washing to cooking and even reading out the newspaper. These robots can be of real help to disabled veterans.

  18. Adeniji Kayode
    November 16, 2011

    You are right, this is good to know that hope is not completely lost for injured veterans.

  19. itguyphil
    November 23, 2011

    Hats off to DEKA technology. It is great indeed as they helped our soldiers, who lost so much for our country, to be able to have artificial limbs which will be helping them to do their daily chores and bring life back to reality a little bit more. I will say that the DEKA technology has done a big deal for our country by helping our veterans in this way.

  20. Kunmi
    November 24, 2011

    Well, he that work has to eat. Veterans/Military have sold their lives to the nation and I think they deserve flexibilty and the best.

  21. Kunmi
    November 25, 2011

    I felt the same way. At times when I see the injured veteran on TV, it makes one to be thoughtful of the great sacrifice they have made. It is unbelievable!

  22. Mr. Roques
    December 23, 2011

    Whenever regulation comes first than innovation, the second one suffers. I think they should be pre-approved by the FDA to try different things.

  23. itguyphil
    December 23, 2011

    I think affordability is the most crucial factor. If there was a large supply available, I do not know if the disabled veterans would even be able to afford them. With the status of health insurance in this country, it might even be a longshot.

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