Audiences the world over recall the famous I am your father scene from George Lucas' original Star Wars trilogy. Face-to-face for the first time, Lord
by Erin Greer

Audiences the world over recall the famous “I am your
father” scene from George Lucas' original Star Wars
trilogy. Face-to-face for the first time, Lord Vader slices off the
hand of Luke Skywalker, his long-lost son. Saved from certain death
through The Force, Luke is then treated for his injuries and fitted
with a new, fully functional, electronic hand.

It's the stuff of science fiction legend. Or is it?

Meet Touch Bionics' i-LIMB Hand. Crafted by the Scotland-based
developer of upper-limb prosthetics, the i-LIMB is the world's
first fully articulating and commercially available bionic
hand.

The hand is manufactured with high-strength plastics and is
controlled by a highly intuitive system that uses a traditional
two-input myoelectric (muscle signal) to open and close the fingers
— to look and act like a real human hand. The muscle signals
are registered through electrodes that sit on the surface of the
skin.

The Force indeed!

With its leading-edge electronics and mechanical engineering,
the Touch Bionics hand, which has thus far been fitted to 370
patients, presents unprecedented potential to provide greater
independence for its users. That potential recently garnered the
i-LIMB and its engineers a place among winners of the 2008 da Vinci
Awards.

Established in 2001 to showcase outstanding achievement in
technologies, designs and disciplines that enhance personal
mobility, the da Vinci Awards have become a launchpad of sorts for
a number of such advancements.

Leslie Kota, vice president of marketing and development for the
National Multiple Sclerosis Society, whose Michigan Chapter began
the awards, says DME inventions and innovations are a natural fit
for the awards.

“Adaptive and assistive technologies can play an important
role in helping people overcome their physical limitations,”
Kota says, “and the purpose [of the da Vinci Awards] is to
acknowledge the most innovative developments and research in the
areas of adaptive and assistive technology.”

Chosen from among nominations sent from around the world, this
year's award winners — selected by a committee that includes
individuals with MS — run the gamut from voice-activated
technologies to a specialized bike. Some of the 2008 winners are
large corporations, but Jim and Veach Breakwell will tell you that
national and international companies didn't receive all the
honors.

“We're actually only a two-man operation,” says Jim,
who, with his cousin Veach invented the Brake-Well Wheelchair
Braking System.

Inspired by the needs of a friend with MS, Jim, who lives in
Baltimore, decided to approach Veach, a sheet metal and wire
fabrication worker from Uniontown, Pa., about developing a system
that would allow a wheelchair to be used both in its traditional
sense and as a walker.

Three months after Jim came up with the idea, the Breakwells had
a prototype for the Brake-Well, which ended up as a lightweight
adaptation that is essentially a second set of brakes for
wheelchairs. The device is helpful for the disabled and their
caregivers worried about braking or stopping on inclines, such as
those on building access ramps.

The pair then purposefully named their device as a play on
words. “It was so catchy, we couldn't avoid using it,”
Jim laughs.

The initial idea took months of tweaking but finally paid off
when Jim's friend with MS, Shelley, began using the first model.
Their invention, which costs less than $100 and will fit
wheelchairs from a variety of top manufacturers, netted the cousins
a spot on the winners' stand next to Fortune 500 companies.

In addition to the i-LIMB Hand and the Brake-Well Wheelchair
Braking System, the following products received honors Sept. 20 at
the 2008 da Vinci Awards ceremony in Dearborn, Mich.:

  • Creative Mobility, Project Mobility and Versa Trike:
    Experience and knowledge of the various physical limitations of
    people with disabilities led Creative Mobility to develop the Versa
    Trike, a three-wheeled, adaptive bike for people with limited
    mobility. The company was also honored for its Project Mobility, a
    nonprofit organization that travels through the United States
    providing adaptive cycling camps for children, adults, disabled
    veterans and newly injured soldiers from Iraq.

  • Ford's SYNC: Offers a voice-recognition interface to
    receive calls, send and receive text messages and control a variety
    of media players in an automobile. The mechanism can control both
    Bluetooth-enabled cell phones and Bluetooth or USB digital media
    devices in a safe, hands-free manner.

  • Keyboard Communicator from Afforda Speech: The first
    swappable keyboard speech-generating device. Individuals with
    verbal communication difficulties who also need external
    specialized keyboards (e.g. large-print, large button, low-force
    keyboards, ergonomic keyboards, one-hand keyboards, etc.) can now
    have a portable text-to-speech solution without needing a desktop
    or notebook computer.

  • Nimble Assessment Systems' NimbleTools: A universally
    designed test delivery interface that increases access to test
    content for students with disabilities and special needs.

    NimbleTools assures access for students with physical
    disabilities who use any one of a variety of assistive/adaptive
    communication devices (e.g., switch mechanisms, sip-and-puff
    devices, Intellikeys, alternate mice, touchscreens, etc.),
    tailoring the accessibility tools based on individual need.

  • Yamaha Motor Co.'s Pushrim Activated Power Assisted
    Wheelchair (PAPAW):
    An add-on wheel with motor and battery
    installed on a manual chair to transform it into a powered chair,
    PAPAW is a wheelchair option for those who have upper extremity
    joint degeneration, reduced exercise capacity, low strength or
    en-durance issues.

The compact, lightweight PAPAW is maneuverable and reduces
fatigue while increasing the range of mobility for its user. PAPAW
is sold by Sunrise Medical.

Past da Vinci Award winners have included Independence
Technology's iBot 4000, Otto Bock Healthcare's C-Leg and Bruno's
Lift-Up Power Mobility Seat.

Proceeds from the awards, sponsored this year by the UAW-GM,
benefit the National MS Society in its quest to help people address
the challenges of living with MS.