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Potential Key to Prosthetics That Feel

by Bryant Jordan on July 30, 2013

EskinOver the past dozen years advances in prosthetics have enabled some troops who have lost use of a hand or lower part of a leg to continue to serve; some airborne soldiers have retained their jump status because of strong and sophisticated prosthetics.

But touch, feeling something coming into contact with the prosthesis, is something no one has regained – yet.

That soon could change with the development of an ultra-thin, featherweight electronic sensor foil that can be shaped or molded to any surface. The technology builds on other recent breakthroughs, including a flexible electronic circuit developed at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, that monitors body movements when applied to the skin.

At the University of Tokyo, engineer Martin Kaltenbrunner is taking that technology to another level by developing bendable circuits than can be applied over large areas. The touch sensor foil Kaltenbrunner is developing is 2 micrometers thick (the width of a strand of spider web silk is anywhere from 3 to 8 micrometers) and is 27 times lighter than a sheet of office paper, according to Kaltenbrunner.

They are extremely flexible and can be crumpled like a tissue or conform to any object, he said, allowing them to be used in a variety of applications healthcare, mobile appliances and even in architecture and design. And that includes being applied to prosthetic limbs, effectively giving wearers a sense of feeling.

“I would definitely say that our technology can be of use to treat wounded or injured, as the main focus of our research lies on medical devices,” Kaltenbrunner said in an email to Defense Tech. “Artificial limbs or prosthetics could most certainly be equipped with our ultra thin sensor sheets, but I can imagine them as well to be worn by patients for post-operative monitoring and treatment.”

The hope, he said, is that extremely thin, flexible e-skins can be used as a way to monitor a patient’s heart, blood pressure, body temperature and more, or to place it near the site of a surgery or wound for post-operation follow-ups.

“The basic idea is to have a form of ‘smart’, unobtrusive batches that can tell the patient or the doctor more about his physical situation and the process of healing,” he said.

Kaltenbrunner said he has not had any inquiries from the Department of Defense about the e-skin.

“I can imagine they would be interested in our research,” he said. “However, as far as I know, the University of Tokyo is not allowed to conduct military-funded research, so this might be a little complicated here. But I would believe that any research aimed at patient treatment will be fine.”

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

LtKitty July 30, 2013 at 1:10 am

God, it's this sort of innovation and development that really gets my heart pumping. I hope they can turn this research into a practical product instead of it getting lost in "what could have been" technologies.

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hibeam July 30, 2013 at 9:14 am

You should show a picture of a drone. Drones are the key to our people getting injured in the first place.

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hibeam July 30, 2013 at 11:12 am

Dag nab it… What I meant to say… Drones are the key to our people NOT getting injured in the first place. Props in the air. NO boots on the ground!

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blight_ July 30, 2013 at 9:34 am

From a robot of the future: "I know now why you cry"

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USS ENTERPRISE July 30, 2013 at 10:19 am

Can we take a moment now to respect the men and women that serve in our military; and realize how helpful this technology is? I know that respect and courtesy isn't something you see here on this site, but honestly, our soldiers might be able to live normal lives; lets respect that.

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blight_ July 30, 2013 at 11:52 am

I'd be more excited at the idea of materials that can conduct sensation from the surface into the PNS/CNS. There's always the possibility of implantable materials that would do motor someday, and enable the paralyzed to walk again.

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Bruce July 30, 2013 at 9:00 pm

I wonder how much further it is from a mature version of this tech, to hooking the 'feed' into the remaining nerve pathways at the point of amputation. Given the way surgeons are currently able to play around with nerves i wouldn't have thought it was too much of a leap, but then again my knowledge in that field is layman at best.

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Dfens July 30, 2013 at 4:02 pm

I notice it is ribbed. I thought that was for her pleasure.

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Rob C. July 30, 2013 at 5:35 pm

This great news, not only for injured soldiers coming home from the battlefield, but also people in general who are crippled. I hope this technology is able fully developed soon and its costs kept down accessible levels for all. Good News!

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hibeam July 30, 2013 at 9:08 pm

We can transplant limbs now. Stop with the silly cyborg stuff. Waste of time and money.

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William July 31, 2013 at 9:11 am

Transplants do not always work. Cyborgs are not silly, although the fantastic cybersolos and 6 million dollar men are a long, long way off. And it's usually better to look at multiple possible solutions.

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tiger August 1, 2013 at 7:32 pm

So how much would Col. Steve Austin cost today make, better, stronger, Faster…….

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blight_ July 31, 2013 at 10:55 am

Transplants require immunosuppressive drugs and even then may eventually be rejected by the host, requiring eventual replacement.

Not a lot of people giving away limbs, let alone organs on death. People die every day, but you don't necessarily want their organs. You only want them from a very select subset of people…

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Juuso August 1, 2013 at 3:53 pm

I would prefer "cyborg stuff" over transplant because it's less freaky to me.

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tiger August 1, 2013 at 7:28 pm

No, Young Frankenstein stuff.
"Where did you get this Brain?" "Oh, Abby someone; last name, normal."

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tiger August 1, 2013 at 7:25 pm

Uh, you want my organs? PAY ME!!!!!!!
Why should my family Starve & have to pay funeral costs Due to me loss? Want Organs? Pay for the donor's Funeral & the value of the organ. $25K? $50K? Etc.
Till then I'm reporting to heaven intact……

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