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Medical devices

His bionic ankle helps others walk

Hugh Herr, iWalk

By Cindy Atoji Keene
Globe Correspondent / May 20, 2012
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THE WAY HUGH HERR sees it, he’s in the transportation business. Personal transportation.

Herr, 47, weaves titanium, silicon, carbon fiber and nuts and bolts into prosthetic devices for amputees. “Our devices have to work like a car, because of the same profound reliance that people have for locomotion,’’ said Herr, director of the Biomechatronics Group at the MIT Media Lab and founder of iWalk, a bionics company based in Bedford.

The work is personal, too. Herr lost both of his lower legs 30 years ago in a hiking accident on Mount Washington. Last year, he introduced BiOM, the world’s first bionic ankle system, designed to work for millions and millions of steps while remaining reliable and comfortable. A wearable robotic system, the prosthetic can’t start to “rattle or hum’’ after long, daily use, Herr said. Veterans of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were the first to be fitted. They were able to walk out the door, leaving canes and crutches behind.

Stealing ideas from nature, Herr used robotics and software to imitate the actions of leg muscles and tendons. “Even if the limb is bionic, the goal is to have it move like skin and muscle,’’ he said. And one day, will we go beyond the current capabilities of the human body, like the Six-Million-Dollar Man?

According to Herr: “Absolutely.’’

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