Pro Sports: A New Frontier for Prosthetics
Judy Davies, Vice President of Global Marketing Communications, Advantest
Professional sports demand a great deal of the athletes who pursue them, and many of these players willingly give 110%—a commitment that takes on new significance when a physical disability is involved. The National Football League (NFL), for example, has boasted a number of players who have excelled in this physically demanding sport despite missing body parts.
Legendary San Francisco 49er cornerback and free safety Ronnie Lott, who was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000, mangled his pinkie finger during the 1985-86 NFL season. His competitive fervor was such that he opted for amputation of the damaged fingertip rather than surgery and rehabilitation that would cause him to miss multiple games.
Prior to the era of Lott, Montana, et. al, place kicker Tom Dempsey utilized a custom-built football cleat with a flattened front surface to accommodate a birth defect: the lack of toes on his right foot. Dempsey enjoyed a 10-year career in the NFL, and during the 1970-71 season, he kicked a 63-yard field goal while playing for the New Orleans Saints—a record that remained unbroken until December 2013.
This year, the Seattle Seahawks selected, as one of their draft picks, defensive player Shaquem Griffin out of the University of Central Florida. Griffin has no left hand, having been born with a congenital condition called amniotic band syndrome that necessitated amputation of his underdeveloped left hand at the age of four. However, Griffin’s performance in college, particularly the Senior Bowl in January, greatly impressed pro scouts, and at the NFL Combine event, he bench-pressed 225 pounds 20 times, using a prosthetic hand to grasp the bar. It’s not yet clear whether the NFL will allow Griffin to wear an artificial hand during games—does such special equipment give a player an unfair advantage, or does it simply help level the playing field?
One thing that isn’t in question: prosthetics technology continues to grow in sophistication. Advances in medical knowledge and kinesiology, together with smaller, more efficient microelectronics and longer battery life, are producing such remarkable devices as prosthetic fingers that enable the dexterity and control a wearer needs to perform everyday tasks most of us take for granted.
Dr. Hugh Herr, director of the biomechatronics group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, is a leading pioneer in engineering bionic limbs A double amputee himself, Dr. Herr has designed high-tech prosthetics, such as his computerized BiOM ankle, that restore users’ ability to pursue such activities as running and swimming. Dr. Herr’s focus is on improving the human-machine interface of prosthetics to reduce users’ pain and frustration.
The ultimate goal is to apply advanced semiconductor technology – including sensors, computers and MEMS – to link artificial limbs with the human nervous system. Dr. Herr will share further details regarding his research and its applications when he delivers the keynote address next May at Advantest’s annual VOICE Developer Conference.
Of course, to go along with the nervous system, as the old song says, “You gotta have heart.” Consider the words of Tom Dempsey, whose reported response to those complaining his custom cleat gave him a competitive advantage was, “Unfair, eh? How about you try kicking a 63-yard field goal to win it with two seconds left and you’re wearing a square shoe – oh yeah, and no toes either.” Talent, technology… and heart. Sounds like a winning combination.