The Scot whose life was transformed when he was given the world’s first ‘bionic’ arm has had to give it back to its inventors, who have stored the revolutionary limb away in a box, calling it nothing more than a “museum piece”.
As a result Campbell Aird has been forced to give up his new hobby of flying because of the loss of the £100,000 artificial arm, which is operated by nerve impulses.
There has also been a delay moving the unit which developed the technology he was using into a new home.
But Aird, who lost his right arm to cancer, is stoical about the hitch, which means he is currently reliant on a much less advanced artificial limb, and looking forward to being involved in tests on a new version of the bionic arm when it is ready early next year. Aird, 52, had the Edinburgh Modular Arm System (EMAS) for a year after he was chosen to test it because his entire arm is missing from the shoulder.
But patient trials are over, and as a result Aird is without the £100,000 prototype he had become accustomed to using. His life is radically different now, mainly because the bionic arm allowed co-ordinated movement in the shoulder, elbow, wrist and hand.
He said: “It gave me a whole new horizon above my head because it can flex at the shoulder. I could lift things off a shelf which needed two hands, and screw in a lightbulb. I could also pick up a nail, get it up on the wall and hammer it in.
“I can’t fly any more because I need the arm to control the propeller. I thoroughly enjoyed the flying lessons I had and it would have been nice to be able to take a plane up from time to time.”
Aird, a former hotelier from Moffat, in Dumfries and Galloway, added: “The EMAS arm was more convenient for driving, and for my hobby of clay pigeon shooting: I had something to rest the gun on.”
However, Aird said he was content to wait until a newer version of the bionic arm was ready for tests, which is expected early next year.
“I was never promised the arm,” he said. “I was the pioneer and I had it for a time, but the test pilot for Concorde didn’t end up with a Concorde. That’s fine by me.”
He had also experienced problems with the EMAS arm, he said. “I was at the Gyle shopping centre in Edinburgh and put both my arms up to reach something, but the EMAS arm got stuck in the ‘up’ position.”
On another occasion, the arm failed to take the weight of a tray Aird was carrying in his hotel, the Moffat House. He said the teething troubles needed to be ironed out, and added that his current artificial limb was in fact superior for some tasks.
“We’re extending a house in Wales and I can use it to carry seven eight-foot long lengths of wood without dropping them,” he said. “I need that reliability.”
The bionic arm is being refined by Touch EMAS, a company set up as a spin-off from the NHS unit at the Princess Margaret Rose hospital in Edinburgh, which came up with the original technology.
David Gow, an NHS bio-engineering expert, is managing director. He said: “From Campbell’s perspective we are not at a stage where there is anything which can go into patient trials. But when there is a new set of prototypes we’ll need a whole set of volunteers to help us test them.
“Campbell’s old arm is in a box in my library. It’s about as far away from being a commercial product as you could imagine.
“The new one will be more streamlined. We’re also reviewing the materials and hope it will be lighter, as well as simpler to assemble.” He said he hoped Aird would be involved in testing a new prototype next year.
Gow’s unit is temporarily housed at Edinburgh’s Eastern General Hospital after the closure of the Princess Margaret Rose.
It had been hoped it could by now be in a new unit at the city’s Astley Ainslie hospital. But that has been delayed, amid claims it is a victim of Lothian’s need to spend a disproportionate amount of NHS money on the £180m Edinburgh Royal Infirmary at Little France.
Gow said: “We had a number of planning delays but that process has been kick-started again and we’re at the stage of it being rubber-stamped so a start can be made in February or March.”
Gow said development of the arm, much of which has been subcontracted to a firm in England, had not been affected by the hold-up. No one from Lothian Primary Care NHS Trust, which runs the Astley Ainslie, was available for comment.
THEY HAVE THE TECHNOLOGY…
HUGE advances in technology are making the fiction of the Bionic Man a reality.
Campbell Aird’s EMAS arm is able to sense tiny electrical currents from his shoulder muscles, which microchips can then translate into specific movements of its joints.
However, he said the limb should technically be called “myonic”, from the Latin word for muscle, because it does not rely on signals direct from the brain. Limbs which do respond to thoughts are soon to become reality, however.
Scientists at Duke University in North Carolina, USA, said this month that brain implants that could allow severely disabled people to control prosthetic limbs with their minds could be ready for use within two years.
Tests with monkeys who had electrodes implanted in their brains showed the animals could control a robotic arm using thoughts.
Last year, British professor Kevin Warwick became a ‘cyborg’ for three months when he implanted a microchip in his arm which allowed him to feel his way around using sonar.