The Pentagon's Bionic DEKA Arm

While Otto Bock appeared to take part in the DEKA arm project with the Michelangelo hand, the DARPA is building a complex electronic arm as can be seen in a current CBS 60 Minutes broadcast.

This arm is an impressive prototype and parts are still quite a bit under development. Yet currently, I am busy optimizing my mechanical hand, hook and wrist, and in relation to that, there are two relevant quotes in this video:

"There's a hook, something out of Peter Pan. And that's just unacceptable" (Dr. Geoffrey Ling, Army colonel and neurologist, leader of the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program)

Something out of Peter Pan? Then it'd be not Peter Pan, but Captain Hook, the villain. This is clearly stigmatizing and demonizing. Media and fictionalizing reality have come a very long way if such a statement is viewed as acceptable. A kid could say that, but this is a guy who for some idiotic reason seems to forget that cable controlled prosthetics can outperform myoelectric prostheses by being more reliable, cheaper (insurance money is all of our money, forgot that?), sturdier, far less dependent on temperature, ready for deployment or usage 24/7 and relatively silent. Not just the manipulation of objects works very well - a whole bunch of tasks are extremely easily done with body powered arms.

This view is in line with my suspicion that a significant part of the upper extremity prosthetics industry actively tries to steer the general expectation towards myoelectric prostheses. The public is brainwashed so people see a regular body-powered prosthesis such as my setup and ask whether that is a modern prosthesis at all. And that creates pressure that is neither helping disabled people, insurance companies nor the general public. Our science fiction gurus are very powerful and I fear they abuse their powers quite a bit.

At the same time, the development of mechanical prostheses - as powerful as their concept is, as rapid and fast as their functions are - seems to be abandoned by major manufacturers. Even worse - speed and reliability issues are serious inherent problems of myoelectric technology. On top, it is not at all that myoelectric prostheses are proven to be faster or better able to do things in general if one compares concise situations.

The goal is probably money and the path to it is public stereotyping.

As a simple battery (Otto Bock) and a simple recharger (Otto Bock)each cost around 600-800 CHF, the iLimb hand (TouchBionics) costs 45'000 CHF (brand new cars start at 18'000 CHF, top of the line computer workstations range around 6'000 CHF, a mobile phone with all options costs around 700 CHF; and that prosthesis features 5 small motors, is pretty loud and one little electronic circuit).

So you can understand that myoelectric prostheses with regularly failing parts seem like a great business model. The standard interaction with customers - I exercised that one through with a German manufacturer - appears to be 'if it breaks you obviously violated the usage limits - no, we don't specify usage limits in measurabel terms'.

This thrives on the misfortune of disabled people, whose public image as "Captain Hook" is also reinforced by the representatives of manufacturers - those that definitely should know better.

However, at least a third of the people I meet think of mechanical prostheses as very proficient. Many people realize that they are being had, that they are fooled by yet another prosthetic gadget that won't ever work as front end product.

Even if the DEKA arm turns into a useful product that can be used for, say, spending a night at the opera or to parade it in an administrative meeting, even then are Mr Ling's words nothing but uneducated and offensive.

"Your body has only so much tolerance for gadgetry" (Fred Downs, head of prosthetics for the Veterans Health Administration, CBS 60 Minutes, April 12th 2009)

The big difference is that Downs is an amputee - and Ling is not.

Cite this article:
Wolf Schweitzer: - The Pentagon's Bionic DEKA Arm; published 13/04/2009, 07:39; URL:

BibTeX: @MISC{schweitzer_wolf_1653416798, author = {Wolf Schweitzer}, title = {{ - The Pentagon's Bionic DEKA Arm}}, month = {April}, year = {2009}, url = {} }