While prosthetic limbs have come a long way over the last two decades, they still can’t replace the dynamics of the real thing. That being said, they do come close, and engineers from Vanderbilt University have created a smart prosthetic ankle that functions similar to its organic cousin.
The ankle does a lot of work while we walk, it allows us to navigate uneven terrain and stairs, helps maintain balance and mitigates shock while adjusting your weight or jumping. Most prosthetics are not capable of replicating those motions, forcing users to find creative ways to overcome uneven obstacles.
Housed inside of the Smart Prosthetic Ankle are a tiny motor and actuator that’s controlled by a microprocessor using data collected from onboard sensors, which senses motion and determines how each step is taken on varied terrain. This gives the appendage the ability to control the foot depending on the action. For example, it will actively lift the foot when climbing stairs or control pitch and yaw/roll on uneven ground.
“Our prosthetic ankle is intelligent, so you can wear a dress shoe, a running shoe, a flat — whatever you’d like — and the ankle adapts. You can walk up slopes, down slopes, up stairs, and down stairs, and the device figures out what you’re doing and functions the way it should.” — Professor of Mechanical Engineering Michael Goldfarb
As it stands right now, the Smart Ankle remains lab-bound, as it requires an electrical outlet to get its power. As the engineers continue the prosthetics development, it will likely be powered by a rechargeable battery when they commercialize it in the next few years.