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A leg up on the competition: U. develops the most advanced bionic leg ever created

Alec McMorris demonstrates the Utah Bionic Leg at the University of Utah's College of Engineering in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. The university has forged a new partnership with Ottobock, a leader in the prosthetics industry, to license the technology behind the Utah Bionic Leg and bring it to individuals with lower-limb amputations.

Alec McMorris demonstrates the Utah Bionic Leg at the University of Utah's College of Engineering in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. The university has forged a new partnership with Ottobock, a leader in the prosthetics industry, to license the technology behind the Utah Bionic Leg and bring it to individuals with lower-limb amputations. (Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)


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SALT LAKE CITY — It is the most advanced bionic leg ever created.

On Wednesday, the University of Utah College of Engineering took another step forward, announcing a partnership with Ottobock — the world's largest prosthetics company — to bring the Utah Bionic Leg to more individuals with lower-limb amputations.

Richard Brown, dean at the U.'s College of Engineering, said that the department and Ottobock have shared philosophies and goals that make the partnership work.

"Our shared vision for restoring mobility and freedom of movement for those who have been affected by traumatic injury and illness unites us," Brown said. "We all look forward to a time when a devastating injury does not lead to a devastating future."

The Utah Bionic Leg is a project that has been in the works for many years and is the culmination of the ideas and innovations of students and professors alike.

Tommaso Lenzi, associate professor at the U.'s Department of Mechanical Engineering and director of the Bionic Engineering Lab, said that the goal of the partnership is to "refine ability" by combining advanced technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence neural engineering with manufacturing, health services and patient care.

"We want to make sure the cutting edge technologies go from the lab to the market as quickly as possible," Lenzi said. "This partnership will enable us to do exactly that."

How does the leg work?

The Utah Bionic Leg, developed by Lenzi and his students, utilizes motors, processors and advanced artificial intelligence that work in concert to give amputees the power and mobility to do things that might seem routine to the average person, such as walk, stand up, sit down, walk up and down stairs and ramps and even traverse uneven ground.

"It is a superior prosthetic knee, incomparable to any currently available product," said Hans Georg Näder, owner and chairman of the board of directors at Ottobock.

Lenzi said that the technologies that make up the bionic leg "fundamentally work like the muscle cells in the nervous system of the leg."

Typically, amputees rely heavily on their upper body and intact leg to compensate for the lack of assistance from their prescribed prosthetics. This isn't as much of an issue with the Utah Bionic Leg, as the extra power from the prosthesis makes mobility easier.

"If you walk faster, it will walk faster for you, and give you more energy. Or, it adapts automatically to the height of the steps in a staircase. Or, it can help you cross over obstacles," Lenzi said.

The Utah Bionic Leg is extremely technologically advanced — something that sets it apart from other prescribed prosthetics.

"The leg uses custom-designed force and torque sensors as well as accelerometers and gyroscopes to help determine the leg's position in space. Those sensors are connected to a computer processor that translates the sensor inputs into movements of the prosthetic joints," said a release from the U.

Doctoral student Marissa Cowan works on the Utah Bionic Leg at the new University of Utah College of Engineering HGN lab in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. The university has forged a new partnership with Ottobock, a leader in the prosthetics industry, to license the technology behind the Utah Bionic Leg and bring it to individuals with lower-limb amputations.
Doctoral student Marissa Cowan works on the Utah Bionic Leg at the new University of Utah College of Engineering HGN lab in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. The university has forged a new partnership with Ottobock, a leader in the prosthetics industry, to license the technology behind the Utah Bionic Leg and bring it to individuals with lower-limb amputations. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

"Based on that real-time data, the leg provides power to the motors in the joints to assist in walking, standing up, walking up and down stairs, or maneuvering around obstacles. The leg's 'smart transmission system' connects the electrical motors to the robotic joints of the prosthetic. This optimized system automatically adapts the joint behaviors for each activity, like shifting gears on a bike."

Essentially, the robotic knee, ankle and toe joints allow users to control the prosthetic intuitively and for long periods of time, just like they would with an intact leg.

It's also extremely lightweight, something that is essential in usability, said Alec McMorris, a Grantsville High School football coach and amputee who's worked closely with the U. for the last five years throughout the development of the Utah Bionic Leg.

"It's just so different. It's so much more technical and allows you to do so much more and it takes so much less energy. That's like the real big benefit for me," McMorris said.

As a football coach, McMorris is on his feet all the time and the Utah Bionic Leg allows him to do things he normally isn't able to do.

"Going upstairs and everything like that is awesome and I can't go upstairs naturally like that on my everyday device. But just being able to feel, like, how much less of a toll it takes on my body really makes a big difference," McMorris said.

As the most advanced bionic leg ever engineered, one could easily assume it will only be available to the "best of the best," as McMorris put it (think paralympic athletes).

However, that isn't the case, and isn't even who this leg could do the most for, McMorris said.

"Somebody that only goes to the grocery store, like, once a week and then they cook and that's really all they can do around the house, this device will make them able to be much more normal again. It's going to give them a lot more support that they don't already have," McMorris said. "For somebody like me, it's awesome, but really, I think the target demographic is somebody that is even more disabled and needs a little bit more help and this is something that can really push them back to living that normalcy."

What will the Ottobock partnership accomplish?

While engineering the most advanced bionic leg is an impressive accomplishment in its own right, Lenzi knows it's more important to get the product to the people who will benefit from it the most.

"We want to make sure the good ideas go from the lab to the market at soon as possible," Lenzi said. "What we're trying to create here is a partnership that will enable us to work together on these kinds of problems by combining the best of academia with the best of industry."

Getting the Utah Bionic Leg to those who need it is certainly something that McMorris would like to see as well.

Right now, he said that insurance will cover a certain amount for an amputee to buy a prosthetic and after that, it's all out of pocket.

"It's kind of a backward world as far as insurance goes for amputees," McMorris said. "I feel like it's kind of set up to give us, maybe, more of a minimal device rather than a device that we can really push and use and grow with. So that's definitely frustrating and hopefully, this partnership and this device coming out helps move some of that forward as well and helps get better devices more accessible."

The U.'s partnership with Ottobock will also push the boundaries of what they're able to accomplish at Bionic Engineering Lab (which will now be officially known as the Hans Georg Näder Laboratory, or HGN Lab).

Doctoral student Suzi Creveling talks about her work on the Utah Bionic Leg at the new University of Utah College of Engineering HGN lab in Salt Lake City on Wednesday.
Doctoral student Suzi Creveling talks about her work on the Utah Bionic Leg at the new University of Utah College of Engineering HGN lab in Salt Lake City on Wednesday. (Photo: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News)

The partnership will fund a state-of-the-art motion analysis system that includes a force-sensing treadmill and force-sensing staircase, 3D motion-capture cameras, and other equipment to help analyze how the Utah Bionic Leg benefits users and discover new ways to improve their technology.

These advancements will position the lab as "one of the best, if not the best" bionic engineering labs in the world.

Additionally, Ottobock will gain joint ownership with the U. for future technologies produced in the lab.

"Our partnership with the Bionic Engineering Lab enables this innovation and offers great opportunities to unite Ottobock's experience and knowledge with technologically exciting new possibilities," Näder said.

"With this partnership, engineers from my lab and Ottobock research and development division will work together," Lenzi said. "Together, we will build the most advanced bionic leg in the world, and bring it to the people."

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Logan Stefanich is a reporter with KSL.com, covering southern Utah communities, education, business and military news.

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