Bluetooth Offers Wounded Veterans a Leg Up

Doctors with the U.S. military are using prosthetics equipped with Bluetooth transceivers to help badly injured combat veterans walk again. A news article on CNN online today reports that rehabilitation specialists at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., are fitting soldiers and marines who have lost both lower limbs in fighting in Iraq with artificial legs that use Bluetooth (an IEEE standard) to communicate their relative position and momentum between each other. The result is greater effectiveness in controlling their new legs for the recovering vets.

The CNN article focuses primarily on the status of Marine Lance Cpl. Joshua Bleill, who lost both his legs above the knees when a bomb exploded under his Humvee while on patrol in Iraq in October 2006. He has 32 pins in his hip and a 6-inch screw holding his pelvis together, according to the news service. Medical engineers created innovative prostheses for Bleill that employ wireless communications chips that use Bluetooth to signal one another about what the marine is doing as he moves his upper legs. The chips then send instructions to motors in the artificial joints of the legs so that their knees and ankles can move in synchronized fashion.

"They mimic each other, so for stride length, for amount of force coming up, going uphill, downhill and such, they can vary speed and then to stop them again," Bleill told CNN. "We've compared walking several laps in both sets of legs and one, your legs come out burning and tired and these, you know, you sometimes are not even breaking a sweat yet."

Bleill has not mastered the new technology sufficiently to walk without the help of a cane, but he says he is determined to do so as soon as possible. Plus, he has offered some important feedback to the prosthetics researchers on ways they can improve their invention.

"It's only going to react to how I move," Bleill noted. "Unfortunately, sometimes I don't know those reactions, I don't know what I'm doing to make it react. So sometimes the leg kicks harder than I want it to, or farther, and then I start perpetuating, and I start moving faster than I really want to."

While he's far from being a bionic man, Bleill understands the opportunity he's been given to return to a semblance of normalcy after his war experience and rehabilitation. He plans to look into ways he can "give back" to his country once he returns to his home in the Indianapolis area by seeking work for a charitable organization and to "just carry on a normal life."

It sounds like he's well on his way to that goal already, with a little help from skilled doctors and technicians.

[Editor's Note: IEEE Spectrum Executive Editor Glenn Zorpette toured Iraq in late 2005 to report first-hand on the reconstruction of the war-torn nation's infrastructure and published a series of award-winning accounts on the facts on the ground at that time, such as "Re-engineering Iraq". He currently is revisiting the scene as an embedded reporter with the U.S. Army and is filing updates on the renewed recovery effort in our Tech Talk blog. Look for further updates from Zorpette as they become available, as well as future feature-length reportage once he returns to the United States.

Plus, next week, look for a Spectrum report on inventor Dean Kamen's latest marvel, the Luke Arm. Named for the sci-fi prosthesis Luke Skywalker was fitted with in the "Star Wars" saga, Kamen's innovative artificial arm is now pending approval (and research funding) from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as a technology suitable for military personnel returning from combat with lost upper limbs.]

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