BIONIC MAN makes it to top of Chicago skyscraper
Mind-controlled limb carries him 1,350 feet up
Bionics took a giant step forward on Sunday – or 2,109 steps, to be precise – when Zac Vawter became the first person to climb the 103 stories to the SkyDeck of Chicago's famed Willis Tower using a mind-controlled prosthetic leg.
As reported by the Associated Press, the 31-year-old Vawter, who lost his right leg in a motorcycle accident in 2009, completed the climb as part of a charity event hosted by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, which has been working with him to develop the computerized limb.
The prosthesis Vawter wore weighed about 10 pounds and looked like something you might find on an automated factory floor. What made it special, however, was that it actually responded to Vawter's thoughts, activating its twin motors whenever he thought about moving his ankle.
"It puts energy in when I'm walking," Vawter explained, "whereas my normal prosthetic is 'dumb,' per se, and doesn't respond or react to me."
Few people with prosthetic limbs are likely to undertake a climb as ambitious as Vawter's, but that was the point. According to researchers, the goal was to test the artificial leg under extreme conditions, to see if it was possible for such a device to remain accurate and safe for the wearer even after extended use.
Completing the climb wasn't just a matter of strapping on the limb and hitting the stairs, either. To train for the ascent, Vawter spent months in a gym using the bionic leg on a small escalator while scientists tuned its performance.
On the day of the event, all went according to plan, and Vawter reportedly reached the SkyDeck observation area in 53 minutes and 9 seconds.
That's all for now, though. The mind-controlled limb is still an experimental prototype, and boffins at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago says it will be years before such devices are ready for Vawter or others to wear on a daily basis.
There's also the issue of cost. Back in 1974, fictional NASA astronaut Steve Austin was fitted with two bionic legs, a bionic arm, and a bionic eye, all for a total of $6m. By comparison, the one bionic leg that Vawter wore on his climb has already cost $8m and counting to develop.
That's actually not so bad – adjusted for inflation, $6m in 1974 dollars is worth around $28m today. Still, it will be a while before such bionic technology will be within the price range of average citizens – astronauts or otherwise. ®