GILFORD, N.H. (AP) – Picking up a banana without squishing it is just one of the skills Chuck Hildreth has gained as part of a project aimed at helping U.S. soldiers who’ve lost limbs in combat.

Hildreth, whose arms were amputated after an accident with high-voltage wires more than two decades ago, has spent the last eight months traveling to a laboratory at DEKA Research and Development Corp. in Manchester. There, he has been testing a state-of-the-art robotic arm as part of an $18.1 million “Revolutionizing Prosthetics Program” funded by U.S. Department of Defense.

Compared to the simple strap and cable system used by his own prosthetic arm, the robotic arm is nothing short of amazing, Hildreth said.

“They have succeeded in building a robotic arm that has all five fingers move, flection extension of the wrist and 230-degree rotation of the wrist,” he said. “There is full range of motion in the elbow and shoulder.” The device has wires that run to a joystick footpad in his shoe, Hildreth said, which allows him to put pressure on certain parts of his foot to move the arm in different ways.

A vibrating sensor attached to his lower back lets him gauge the strength of any given motion.

“It’s pretty incredible. I can actually tell how tightly I am grabbing things. When pressure is applied to the thumb it activates a vibrator sensor. The tighter I grip, the more intense the vibration is,” he said.

Hildreth and two other testers started out learning how to stack cups and simply move the arm around. After about 10 hours of testing, he could use the arm to pick up a screw off a table and use a drill to screw it into a board.

DEKA is owned by inventor Dean Kamen, best known for his Segway self-balancing scooter. Hildreth has met with Kamen numerous times and traveled with him to Washington as part of the project.

“He is a very down-to-earth guy who is amazingly committed to engineering things that help people,” Hildreth said.

Hildreth was 18 when he grabbed a high-tension wire that sent an estimated 14,000 volts of electricity into his arms, which were amputated along with three toes in each of his feet. He spent 21/2 months in the hospital and six months in rehabilitation. Nine months later, he was back on the ski slopes.

Aside from upgrades in plastics, he said the prosthetics he’s used since then aren’t much different from what was available after World War II. “I honestly never thought I would see the day when prosthetics were moving in this direction,” he said.

Information from: Citizen,

AP-ES-02-02-08 1404EST

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