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Poetry in motion: North Texas lab revolutionizes prosthetic technology

Back in the 1970s, Americans marveled at the “six million dollar” heroism of Steve Austin and Jaime Sommers. Their high performance “bionic” capabilities, including lifelike prosthetic legs, were the stuff of science fiction.

It’s no wonder. The technology behind the prostheses of the 1970s was rooted in the 1950s, and it hasn’t changed much since then. Until now. Thanks to the Locomotor Control Systems Laboratory (the “LocoLab”) at the University of Texas at Dallas, researchers are leveraging emerging technologies to bring strength, stability and responsiveness to the science of prosthetics.

In his recently published research, Dr. Robert Gregg details how he and the LocoLab team applied robot control theory to enable powered prosthetics to dynamically respond to the wearer’s environment. The same technology that allows humanoid robots to walk, run, jump and climb stairs autonomously is now being applied to prostheses to make them more stable, intuitive and able to respond to disturbances or changing terrain. Today, people wearing a robotic leg built by the LocoLab can walk on a moving treadmill almost as fast as an able-bodied person.

“As we’re seeing the miniaturization of electronics in cell phones and motors in quadrotor drones,” said Dr. Gregg, “we’re seeing technologies in these parallel fields that can be connected to perform at a level that couldn’t have been done 10 years ago.”

For Dr. Gregg, there were only a few places in the country where he could turn a lifelong passion for robotics into serious research into advanced, life-changing prosthetics.

“I had to think deeply about where I could do my work,” he remembers. “There is a limiting factor because there are only 13 prosthetics schools in the country. There are clinics all over the country, but with the scale of research that I needed to do, I really needed a prosthetics school nearby with a high level of expertise and research. It turns out that the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science at UT Dallas is a fantastic engineering school right next to UT Southwestern, a medical research institution with fantastic prosthetics program. Dallas is a great place for me to be.”

Read about more North Texas researchers and their innovative work in the latest issue of NTX Magazine.

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