DARPA's 'Luke Skywalker' Arm Wins FDA Approval

deka arm
The DEKA Arm System is capable of handling objects as delicate as grapes and eggs and also manipulating power tools, such as a hand drill. (Image credit: DARPA)

An extremely advanced prosthetic arm — sometimes compared to Luke Skywalker's arm from "Star Wars" — has been approved for clinical use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, officials announced.

The DEKA arm, funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), is an upper-limb prosthetic designed to restore near-natural control to amputees. The high-tech limb can handle objects as delicate as a grape or as hefty as a power tool, researchers said.

The military research agency launched the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program in 2006 with the goal of developing a prosthetic device "to repay some of the debt we owe to our service members," Dr. Geoffrey Ling, director of DARPA's Biological Technologies Office, said in a statement. [Humanoid Robots to Flying Cars: 10 Coolest DARPA Projects]

The program aims to provide a more sophisticated alternative to prosthetic devices such as the split-hook device invented in 1912.

The DEKA Arm System, developed by the company DEKA Integrated Solutions in Manchester, New Hampshire, uses wireless signals from sensors in the user's feet and other inputs to control the arm's multiple joints. The arm is about the same size and weight as a natural limb, and is battery-powered. The user can select among six different grips.

The arm's development would not have been possible without a host of technological advances, including the miniaturization of motor parts, computer controls and sensors and manufacturing that uses lightweight but strong materials.

The FDA approved the device based on a study of 36 participants, funded by the Department of Veterans Affairs, as well as additional tests and trials funded by the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command. The device is designed for people who are 18 or older.

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Tanya Lewis
Staff Writer
Tanya was a staff writer for Live Science from 2013 to 2015, covering a wide array of topics, ranging from neuroscience to robotics to strange/cute animals. She received a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a bachelor of science in biomedical engineering from Brown University. She has previously written for Science News, Wired, The Santa Cruz Sentinel, the radio show Big Picture Science and other places. Tanya has lived on a tropical island, witnessed volcanic eruptions and flown in zero gravity (without losing her lunch!). To find out what her latest project is, you can visit her website.