Hugh Herr lost his legs to frostbite as a teenager after a mountain climbing excursion went terribly wrong. Hugh, a self-professed “hacker”, worked with wood and metal to create bionic limbs that helped him climb better than his original equipment.
Fast forward 30 years to 2014. Hugh is standing on stage at the SolidWorks World conference demonstrating prosthetics that are so advanced that they truly mimic the motions of natural limbs. The legs have 2 microprocessors and 12 sensors that allow Hugh to walk and even run with a natural gait.
Hugh is a designer and an engineer at the MIT Media Lab where his company, Biom, develops bionic limbs. His biomechanics and electrical systems are extremely sophisticated, so it takes the resources of the MIT Media lab to bring this advanced engineering to life. For example, his team has access to SolidWorks CAD and to 3D printers for custom components.
Speaking with Hugh is inspirational because he sees a future where disability is eradicated. He believes that people like him will be as proud of their bodies as people who are naturally whole. In fact, his experience demonstrates that double amputees like himself can actually perform at a higher level than biological limbs.
At this stage of development the microprocessors and sensors allow for a natural movement, but the users do not actually “feel”. That could all change based on research currently under way at the MIT Media lab on implants that will connect to nerve tissue. But even the current version is so tightly matched to the user’s anatomy that new users can walk with their new legs in a matter of minutes. As Hugh says, “There is no user manual”. The artificial intelligence in the software interprets the sensor data to keep the user automatically balanced and moving.
Right now Hugh has 8 pairs of limbs for different activities from walking to running to mountain climbing. He envisions a future where all of these capabilities will be built into a single prosthetic.
The MIT Media Lab is working on other advancements, including exoskeletons that will reduce the joint damage of athletic activities and superior ways to connect bionic limbs to the body in a more functional and comfortable way.
The next steps for Biom include developing a new battery that will last longer than the current 3,000 step capacity. Hugh also wants them to develop a longer life for the mechanisms themselves, which have a life of less than 5 years.
To date there has been $50M invested into research for Hugh’s legs. He intends to continue to refine these bionic prostheses and then make the designs available open source.