October 31, 2012
Amputee to climb skyscraper with thought-controlled bionic leg
By Kristy Brownlee, QMI Agency
A New Brunswick engineer is heading up research on a cutting-edge bionic leg that will be worn by an amputee when he climbs more than 100 flights of stairs at a Chicago skyscraper this weekend.
But this high-tech leg isn't a typical prosthetic -- it's controlled by thought.
Zac Vawter, a 31-year-old software engineer from the Seattle, Wash., area, lost his right leg in a motorcycle crash in 2009. He's part of a pilot project involving Canadian and American researchers to develop an intuitive prosthetic that could be used by wounded veterans and other amputees years from now.
The prototype -- researchers are about five years away from clinical trials -- works by measuring electrical signals generated by Vawter's hamstring muscles. A motorized ankle and knee help synchronize the faux limb.
"He's thinking about walking or he's thinking about going up the stairs, and then he naturally goes up the stairs," said project leader Levi Hargrove, a specialist in biomedical engineering at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. The Bath, N.B., native trained at the University of New Brunswick, which is also helping out with the $8-million U.S. State Department-funded research.
On Sunday, the robotic leg will be put to its greatest test yet when Vawter sets out to climb to the top of the Willis Tower for the fundraiser SkyRise Chicago, with proceeds going to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
Vawter said he's excited to make the climb with the one-of-a-kind leg and, aside from a battery change, doesn't expect any issues.
"It's more intuitive and natural than my standard prosthesis and it's designed to interact with me," the father of two said in an e-mail.
Hargrove and other project team members will climb the stairs on Sunday along with Vawter -- a former university track-and-field runner.
"I'll try to keep up with him," Hargrove said with a laugh.