Performance-enhancing Paralympic technology raises hopes and concerns

Fast work

A new class of biohybrid prostheses will enable quicker running time

Hugh Herr, director of the Biomechatronics Group at the MIT Media Lab, wants to create a prosthetic that could enable its user to run faster than Usain Bolt. He is pioneering research projects for a new class of biohybrid ’smart’ prostheses and believes the next century will blur the boundaries between man and machine.

One project involves a motorised ankle-foot prosthesis that provides active mechanical power. Its basic architecture is a unidirectional spring, configured in parallel with a force-controllable actuator that allows the ankle foot to match the size and weight of the human ankle.

Herr is now developing small, wireless implants that can be attached to muscles near the neuromuscular junction. In the longer term, he is researching the possibility of directly attaching a foot prosthesis to an amputee’s residual limb bone.