'It has changed my life': The £6.5m 'bionic' limbs for injured British soldiers

Julian Gavaghan

The Government today announced it will spend £6.5million to give the prosthetics to heroes like Captain Nick Beighton, whose legs were both blown off in Afghanistan.

Wearing a suit while scaling ladders on his building sites, there is little reason to believe Matthew Newbury might have a disability.

This is because the 31-year-old businessman, who lost his left leg after a horrific motorcycle accident 16 years ago, has replaced the limb with a bionic one which 'moves' by itself.

In 2011, he became the first person in Britain to receive a state-of-the-art Genium prosthetic leg, which uses computers to improve movement.

“It has completely changed the way I live my life and has provided me with the confidence to attempt things that I had thought were beyond me,” says Mr Newbury, from central London.

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Now, two years on, it has been revealed that British soldiers will also benefit from this revolutionary technology.

The Government today announced it will spend £6.5million to give the

prosthetics to heroes like Captain Nick Beighton, whose legs were both

blown off in Afghanistan.

But just why are these legs revolutionary? How do they work? And what might be possible in the future?

Until recently, little had changed about false limbs since after the First World War, when firm’s such as Germany’s Otto Bock, Genium’s manufactuer, were set up to help the thousands of men returning from the trenches without arms or legs.

The devices were usually essentially two solid parts with a hinge between to simulate the movement of either the knee or elbow.

The materials used – such as the Genium’s light-but-strong carbon fibre– varied but users still had to learn to wear a limb that could never come close to simulating a real one.

Bionic sensors, which first emerged in the 1990s and detect movement in the wearer’s body, are the chief component to trigger this prosthetic revolution.

The Genium, which is powered by a rechargeable lithium battery with a five-day life, has three sensors – one in the ankle and another in the knee, which both detect motion in those areas, and a third in the joint that detects position, speed and angle of the leg to correct movement.

Crucially, its Intuitive Stance Function is designed to differentiate between when a user is standing still and walking so it can distribute weight on the different parts accordingly.

Each part communicates via a Bluetooth connection to achieve this balance – and it means no additional stress is borne anywhere else in the body.

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An additional system allows for a gait that is incredibly close to a natural physiological one, although one shortcoming is that it takes a month to figure this out.

The complicated computers are programmed to achieve ten different modes of movements, such as sporting activities.

“With previous prosthetics, I was constantly aware and cautious of their limitations - you need to think about every step,” says Mr Newbury who bought a Porsche with private number plate HA5 1 LEG after a winning £2.1million compensation in 2004.

“With Genium, it does all the thinking for me. I can now easily climb the scaffolding on my housing projects and am able to walk, ride and navigate life without a second thought.”

He has even managed to ski without any difficulty.

Philip Yates, Managing Director of Ottobock Healthcare in the UK, said, “Our aim is to reduce the differences between the body’s natural abilities and artificial replacements.

“The Genium represents our latest work decoding the complexity of human gait in ever greater detail and incorporating our insights into a functional, stable, everyday prosthetic system that will redefine quality of life and everyday mobility for amputees.”

But what about the future? How can amputees expect their lives to transform by new technology that are still in the research process?

The next generation of prosthetics will undoubtedly be mind-controlled limbs, which would make movement smoother and more natural.

Already, some progress has been made with a hand operated by the wearer’s thoughts.

But the main hurdle for scientists – before fully rolling out this technology – is finding a way to permanently keep hair-thin electrodes plugged into wearers’ nervous systems and not do any damage.

But scientists are confident that a major leap could be made within the next five years.