Joliet Amputee Gets State's First Bionic Ankle

BiOM uses robotics to replicate muscles, tendons to mimic ankle's motion

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Randy Earl lost portions of his right arm and leg years ago after a jolt of electricity tore through his body while he working as a lineman with Commonwealth Edison. Marion Brooks reports.

    A Joliet amputee on Thursday became the first in Illinois to get a natural-feeling spring in his step thanks to a revolutionary robotic ankle.

    Randy Earl lost portions of his right arm and leg years ago after a jolt of electricity tore through his body while he working as a lineman with Commonwealth Edison.

    Since then, the self-proclaimed guinea pig said he's tried a number of technologies and prosthetics and said he's been mostly satisfied with his most-recent leg.

    Then he tried the BiOM, a bionic limb that leverages robotics -- software, micro-processors, accelerometers, gyroscopes and torque angle sensors -- to replicate muscles and tendons that replace the action of the ankle.

    "It changes my gait entirely. Walking is natural now, and I'd not realized how much difference it was," said Earl. "This foot just emulates natural walking better than anything I've ever been on."

    Traditional prosthetics have been made of a carbon fiber foot with a fixed attachment to a pylon. That inhibits motion, isn't cosmetically natural and can lead to knee and hip degeneration and arthritis.

    "We have muscles that contract, and when they contract they do positive work. That's how we generate the power we need to walk," explained Brian Frasure, an amputee who began using the technology about two years ago. "Our goal with this technology was to try to tackle the two biggest problems with foot technology, and that's range of motion and energy return."

    Frasuer, former track athlete who lost his leg in a car crash nearly 20 years ago, was so impressed with the BiOM that he went to work with iWalk, the Bedford, Mass.,-based developer.

    "I saw it was doing for me personally," he said. "It was the first piece of technology that made such a difference to me that it made me want to go and work for the company."

    The price of the limb currently sits at about $40,000 and isn't covered by most insurance policies. But the U.S. Department of Defense is buying them for veterans and Earl's is being picked up by his workman's compensation insurance.

    Frasure said future iterations of the ankle should be smaller and lighter, include an improved battery and reduce noise.

    For now, Earl said he's thrilled with the product and  looks forward to living a more comfortable life. 

    "I'm going to go home and run some hurdles!" he said.