Have you ever wondered whether something that is perceived as your shortcoming, something that stops you from living life in a “normal” way, could actually be seen as an opportunity to push past conventional boundaries?
Hugh Herr is doing just that. He has created bionic limbs that are more flexible, more versatile, and much stronger than normal biological limbs, and is challenging our understanding of disability as something that hinders us from doing the things we love. Through his creations he is managing to bridge the gap between disability and ability, and at the same time exploring human limitation and potential.
Herr had both legs amputated below the knee after tissue damage from frostbite in a mountain climbing accident. He was very well known in climbing circles, and at 17 years old, he had scaled cliff faces that no adult had ever attempted before. As a teenage climbing phenomenon, he met fellow climber Jeff Batzer and together decided to scale Mount Washington in New Hampshire. As they set out, avalanche conditions set in, but they kept going in the snow, believing it mild enough to manage, enjoying themselves. The conditions got worse, visibility was poor, and they got higher and higher on the mountain and further north, meaning further away from civilisation. They realised they needed to turn around, but Herr fell through ice during a river crossing and lost body heat and precious energy. After three days on the mountain they were eventually rescued, but Herr’s legs were severely frostbitten and gangrene was threatening to creep into the rest of his body. Seven surgeries later and doctors were still unable to get blood flowing back into his feet. His legs were amputated just below the knees, and he was fitted with legs made from plaster of paris. He cried every day for two years, his main focus not so much walking again, but whether he could climb. All he wanted was to feel normal again.
A few months after his surgery, he was fitted with a pair of acrylic legs, and took himself back into the mountains. As he climbed he realised that the real parts of his body got colder and achier, while his artificial limbs had no muscle fatigue whatsoever. He could also move a lot more quickly, because the amputations had left him 14 pounds lighter. This was when he had the realisation that fake limbs could possibly outperform real ones. A life changing realisation and one that set him on the path to creating dynamic bionic limbs that moved and felt better than real ones.
He realised there was a gap in artificial limb technology for bionic limbs – data driven creations rather than artisan crafted. So he filled that gap.
How do his legs work? There are three interfaces – mechanical, dynamic, and electrical.
Mechanically, he discovered a way to attach the limbs to the body in a comfortable and durable way – a relief for anyone who wears an artificial limb and endures the pain where the artificial and biological limbs meet. Where the body is stiff, he made the synthetic skin soft, and vice versa. This was done through a combination of MRI scans, robotic data and experimenting with different synthetic materials.
Dynamically, it was necessary to understand what each muscle does, how they connect with each other, and how those muscles are controlled by the spine.
Electrically, he realised that to make the limbs feel real, they needed to be a real part of the body, connecting with other processes, most importantly, the nervous system. He modelled the artificial limb on the biological limb, and researched the spinal reflexes and connections between the limb and the brain. He even went a step further, realising that through motor channels we can sense how a person wants to move. He now wears synthetic limbs that move and FEEL like flesh and bone.
Over half the world’s population suffers from some kind of cognitive, emotional sensory and motor condition, and due to poor technology these conditions so often end up as some form of disability.
Herr believes every person should have the right to live life without disability. To be able to see a loved one even with impaired sight, to be able to live without severe depression, to walk or dance in the case of limb paralysis or amputation.
Herr is shifting our viewpoint on disability and amputation, from the belief that a person is broken, to the idea that our environment is disabled and inadequate. A broken body is not a broken person.
He is passionate about bringing this innovative technology to the people that need it.
For more information on Hugh Herr and his work, see his Ted Talk, “The New Bionics That Let Us Run, Climb and Dance”: