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Health, Science & Tech

This Robotic Foot Helps People Pick A Better-Fitting Prosthetic Limb

Mark Nootbaar
90.5 WESA

When it comes to prosthetic limbs, there can be hundreds of options. Each make and model can differ in flexibility, reflex and a long list of other variables.

But it’s not always easy for someone to find that perfect fit.  

Dr. Mary Ann Miknevich runs six clinics for Medical Rehabilitation, Inc. in the Pittsburgh area and said though her clinics have a few prosthetics on site to make sure the client gets the right fit, that's not always enough. 

“It’s also excessive time on the part of the prosthetist to bring in different feet, to arrange to get them to be brought in,” she said. “Not all manufactures will allow trials of their devices.”

Patients often face limited options for such a big decision. A prosthetic limb can cost several thousand dollars and once a patient makes a decision, it could be years before an insurance company would pay for a replacement. 

This is where Mt. Lebanon-based start-up HuMoTech is looking to make a difference. President and CEO Josh Caputo is developing a robotic foot that can be programmed to exhibit all sorts of different characteristics.

“So we program this tool to mimic the behavior of these commercially available devices and the patient can come into the lab and virtually try on different products,” Caputo said.

Caputo said it feels exactly like the amputee is wearing any of the devices programmed into the machine. And it’s easy to switch among the different models.

“An analogy I like to use is that of the machine you use at the eye doctor where you try on, essentially, different eyeglass prescriptions and you select the one that allows you to see the best,” Caputo said.

HuMoTech’s machine includes a treadmill, a bunch of cabling and a fairly large motor, which means it needs a lot of space. Caputo imagines a smaller device eventually, but for now the potential market seems to be in larger clinics.

“So we’re hoping to demonstrate the realism of this experience that this mimicry really does give you the same experience as you would if you were actually physically trying on the different products,” Caputo said.

Caputo sees other potential benefits to his tool. Since the prosthetic limb being tested does not have to actually be on site, a manufacture’s marketing department could upload technical data into his system and patients could virtually try on the products even before they are built.

The data could also flow back to the manufacturer’s research division to help in new product development or customization.

“While they are walking, we change the behavior of the device and we take them through dozens of different comparisons and we can ultimately map out their preference,” Caputo said.  “We’re uniquely positioned to start offering ideas how products might behave.”

HuMoTech is surviving on grants and partnerships with research labs as it looks to perfect its hardware and software.

In this week's Tech Headlines: 

  • The University of Pittsburgh has created the Institute for Cyber Law, Policy and Security with former U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Pennsylvania David Hickton as its first director. Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher said in a news release the university is “poised to offer significant contributions to the national discussion on cyber-related issues affecting personal, national and global security and privacy.” Along with Hickton’s experience, the institute will tap into faculty from the soon-to-be-opened School of Computing and Information. Hickton said in the same news release that the institute will help develop law, norms and rules that would apply to the legally vague cyber environment.
  • The U.S. government has accused Fiat Chrysler of failing to disclose software in some of its diesel vehicles that allows them to emit more pollution than allowed under the Clean Air Act. The EPA said it will continue to investigate the "nature and impact" of the eight software functions which regulators say caused the vehicles to emit less pollution during testing than during regular driving. The software was identified through an intensive testing program launched after Volkswagen was caught in a similar cheating scandal in 2015. The company denied any wrongdoing, saying the EPA was blowing the issue out of proportion. Fiat Chrysler told the Associated Press it intends to present its case to the incoming Trump administration. If found liable the automaker could face more than $4.5 billion in fines.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.