Dean Kamen
Courtesy DEKA
Creating Next-Generation Prosthetics
The path to the DEKA arm

By Jan Hubbard

When Dean Kamen first met with Army Col. ­Geoffrey Ling in 2005, the conversation about the possibility of building a better prosthetic arm quickly switched into overdrive. Ling was head of the prosthetics program for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and Kamen was an accomplished scientist whose inventions included the Segway.

Ling was also a doctor and an Army Medical Corps officer with 27 years experience and had served combat tours in Afghanistan (2003) and Iraq (2005). His challenge to Kamen was presented briskly, in commanding, efficient military style.

“This very, very passionate colonel is sitting there saying, ‘You’re going to give me an arm that does this and does this and can pick up a grape and pick up a raisin, and they’re going to feel this,’ ” Kamen says. “ ‘And, by the way, it has to fit on a 50th percentile female — none of these big things that they wear boxes around.’ And then he says, ‘By the way, I need it in two years.’ And I literally did say, ‘Colonel, with all due respect, you’re crazy. You’ve been watching too much Terminator.’ ”

There was never any doubt, however, that Kamen — who had been called “a sort of rock star in the world of inventors” on the CBS news program 60 Minutes — was going to take the project.

“I kept imagining putting an arm on a guy who had lost an arm, and that, to me, is a pretty traumatic thing,” Kamen says. “But somewhere near the end of his visit, Dr. Ling said to me, ‘We’ve got a couple of dozen soldiers who have lost both of their arms.’ I just started thinking, ‘What are these people going to do living the rest of their lives without arms?’ I couldn’t get that out of my head, so I decided we had to give back to them as much as we could.”

Kamen’s Manchester, N.H.-based company, DEKA Research & Development Corp., has built more than 25 prosthetic arms, and Kamen says American Airlines has played a role in the project. “American has various programs to help disabled vets,” Kamen explains. “When we’ve needed to have people come and look at different aspects of what we’re doing and comment on it, American flies them around. I’ve been to events, hosted in whole or in part by American, to help disabled vets. American has been a pretty high-profile supporter of our military people with respect to disabilities.”

As of now, the DEKA arms aren’t available to the public because they still must be reviewed by the Food and Drug Administration. Kamen is certain, however, that the day of mass production isn’t that far away.