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Battlefield Breakthoughs: RFID Technology Moves Prosthetic Hands

A technology with roots in World War II is now enabling amputees to program their prosthetic hands.  It’s RFID, radio frequency identification. 

Sean McHugh lost his right hand and part of his forearm in a construction accident 11 years ago. Today he wears a high-tech prosthetic arm with a sophisticated multi-articulated hand. Now the way it usually works is electrodes in the arm socket pick up movements of certain muscles and that moves the hand. But it didn’t work for McHugh.  

“I was never really good, even with the best of training and working with some of the most wonderful occupational therapists in the country, I didn’t have what I felt was a reliable, comfortable control,” McHugh said. 

That’s where RFID, radio frequency identification, comes in. During World War II, all aircraft, friend or foe, looked the same on a radar screen. So, the British installed small transmitters that when hit by a radio signal from the ground, would bounce back a signal that identified the plane. That’s considered the genesis of RFID. Today it’s in the barcodes at the grocery store. wireless tracking of packages and more.

Here’s how it works for Sean McHugh.  He carries a handful of RFID-programmed chips that look like they belong on a poker table. When he swipes a wrist band with a chip it changes the position of the hand. The device is called The Morph.

“So you can see by just coming in proximity to the Morph with the tag this one triggers it to open. This one will trigger it to close," McHugh said, demonstrating the changes. "I have one on my cellphone that will put it into that finger point mode. So, I can tag familiar objects in my life that will put the hand into the proper grip pattern to operate the devices. It takes three different grip forms to operate a coffee maker.”

The hand stays locked into position until swiped again with the chip. And McHugh says that’s a big deal. Sometimes unintended muscle contractions send the wrong signal, the hand unexpectedly opens and the drink spills, and sometimes glass shatters.  

“These little tags that come in a variety of different sizes and shapes and strengths, I can use them to activate those modes instead of having to do that muscle dance that I was never able to do,”  McHugh said with a big smile.   

McHugh was the first test subject for The Morph. He and RahulKaliki with Infinite Biomedical Technologies stopped in Dallas recently to demonstrate it for North Texas prosthetic limb specialists.   

Kaliki, The Morph’s co-inventor, says there are a lot of possibilities that involve more than just poker chips.

“Sean originally mentioned about having something on a ring, or on his shoelaces so that when he needs to go and tie his shoes he can go into a mode that’s better for him. We’re thinking all along those lines. Eventually maybe there will be utensils that will have RFID built into them, ” Kaliki said.

The idea for RFID prosthetic programming came out of the military’s 2007 push to improve artificial limbs for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. The Morph received final FDA approval last month and is officially on the market, priced between $3-5,000.

McHugh is excited.

“It’s a game changer," he said, beaming. "It takes this from being an interesting toy to being a useful device.   

Chris Lake, a prosthetic specialist in Euless was at the demonstration of The Morph and expects insurance approval any day now for a 39 year old mid-cities man who could be the first North Texan to use the new technology.  

Former KERA reporter BJ Austin spent more than 25 years in broadcast journalism, anchoring and reporting in Atlanta, New York, New Orleans and Dallas. Along the way, she covered Atlanta City Hall, the Georgia Legislature and the corruption trials of Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards.