WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Tuesday met the bionic man, and it turned out to be someone he’s known for decades.
At a Pentagon demonstration of new technologies being developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the wounded warrior who showed off an advanced prosthetic was Fred Downs Jr., who worked for Hagel at the Veterans Administration during the Reagan presidency. Downs lost an arm in a landmine explosion while fighting in Vietnam.
Hagel hugged him and shook his mechanical hand, with Downs joking, “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“He and I worked together many years ago,” said Hagel, who received Purple Hearts during his service in Vietnam. “How you doing, Fred? How’s your family?”
Downs showed Hagel how he controls movements of the DARPA arm, which appeared to be partly covered in translucent white plastic, with two accelerometers strapped to his feet. Through a combination of foot movements, he’s able to control the elbow, wrist and fingers of the battery-powered appendage in a variety of movements, including the thumbs-up sign he gave Hagel.
It took only a few hours to learn to control the arm, he said.
“It’s the first time in 45 years, since Vietnam, I’m able to use my use my left hand, which was a very emotional time,” he said.
Dr. Justin Sanchez, a medical doctor and program manager at DARPA who works with prosthetics and brain-related technology, told Hagel that DARPA’s arm is designed to mimic the shape, size and weight of a human arm. It’s modular too, so it can replace a lost hand, lower arm or a complete arm.
Hagel said such technology would have a major impact on the lives of injured troops.
“This is transformational,” he said. “We’ve never seen anything like this before.”
DARPA and its research partners are working on ways to control prosthetics, ranging from sensors like Downs uses, to prosthetics that can read minute muscle movements in residual limbs. Even further into the realm that a few years ago would have been considered science-fiction was a video that Sanchez showed Hagel of a patient whose brain had recently been implanted with a sensor at the University of Pittsburgh, allowing her to control an arm with her thoughts.
Matt Johannes, an engineer from the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, showed Hagel a shiny black APL-produced hand and arm that responds to brain impulses. The next step is to put sensors in the fingers that can send sensations back to the brain.
“If you don’t have line of sight on something you’re trying to grab onto, you can use that sensory information to assist with that task,” Johannes said.
The tactile feedback system should be operational within a few months, he said.
“People said it would be 50 years before we saw this technology in humans,” Sanchez said. “We did it in a few years.”
Hagel was next given an overview of the DARPA Robotic Challenge, a competition to develop a rescue and disaster response robot that was inspired by the Fukushima nuclear incident.
Virginia Tech’s entrant in the contest, the hulking 6-foot-2-inch Atlas robot developed by Boston Dynamics, loomed menacingly in the background as Hagel was shown a video of robots walking over uneven ground and carrying things. Except for LED lighting, however, the 330-pound humanoid appeared to be switched off.
Brad Tousley, head of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, explained to Hagel that Hollywood creates unrealistic expectations of robotic capability. In fact, building human-like robots capable of autonomously doing things like climbing ladders, opening doors and carrying things requires major feats of engineering and computer science.
Journalists were escorted out before the remaining three technologies could be demonstrated because of classified concerns. According to a defense official speaking on background, Hagel was later brought up to date on progress of three other DARPA programs:
- PLAN X, “a foundational cyberwarfare program to develop platforms for the Department of Defense to plan for, conduct and assess cyberwarfare in a manner similar to kinetic warfare.”
- PERSISTENT CLOSE AIR SUPPORT, a system to, among other things, link up Joint Tactical Air Controllers with close air support aircraft using commercially available tablets.
- LONG RANGE ANTI-SHIP MISSILE, to “reduce dependence on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, network links, and GPS navigation in electronic warfare environments.”