SPARKY operates by employing a spring to store energy as the wearer walks during normal gait, said Thomas Sugar, an ASU associate professor of engineering at the Polytechnic campus who led the research. Thomas Sugar and his colleagues - ASU doctoral students Joseph Hitt and Matthew Holgate, as well as Barrett Honors College student Ryan Bellman - have been developing and refining SPARKy for three years as part of a United States Army grant.
SPARKy uses a robotic tendon to actively stretch springs when the ankle rolls over the foot, thus allowing the springs to thrust or propel the artificial foot forward for the next step. Because energy is stored, a lightweight motor is used to adjust the position of a finely tuned spring that provides most of the power required for gait.
"SPARKY basically removes the old passive devices and makes it an active device the wearer uses to attain normal gait, which for an amputee is a significant return to normal function", Thomas Sugar stated. SPARKy is not only an active prosthetic device, but it also allows a wider range of movement than previous devices, it weighs less and it causes less fatigue for the wearer.
SPARKy provides functionality with enhanced ankle motion and push-off power comparable to the gait of an able bodied individual. Thomas Sugar said the device reached its primary goal of returning the functionality of the amputee to his/her status prior to losing a limb.
The device is built to take advantage of the functional mechanics of gait. A gait cycle is the natural motion of walking, starting with the heel strike of one foot and ending with the heel strike of the same foot. "The cycle can be split into two phases, stance and swing", Thomas Sugar stated. "We are concerned with storing energy and releasing energy (regenerative kinetics) in the stance phase."
The mechanics of walking can be described as catching a series of falls, Thomas Sugar added. In SPARKy, a tuned spring - acting like the Achilles tendon - breaks the fall and stores energy as the leg rolls over the ankle during the stance phase.
While the project is nearing completion of its three year grant, there still is much more work to do to refine the device. To date, SPARKy has allowed users to walk on inclines, steps and to walk backwards, not trivial tasks for people who have only had access to passive, and sometimes cumbersome, prosthetics. In the future, the team plans to make additional improvements to lower the weight of SPARKy by integrating very fast microprocessors and using the smallest lithium ion batteries. "We want our finished device to allow soldiers to return to active duty", Thomas Sugar stated.
The device is featured in the January 2010 National Geographic magazine in an article called "Merging Man with Machine, the Bionic Age". To see a video of the SPARKy device, you can visit the Arizona State University website.