The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus


SMU engineers lead new DARPA research center


The establishment of a multi-million dollar research center may allow injured soldiers and other amputees to use and feel their bodies like they used to.


The Neurophotonics Research Center, led by SMU engineers, is planning to develop a two-way fiber optic communication between prosthetic limbs and peripheral nerves. 


This would enable a limb to both move and feel like normal. In essence, those affected would be able to feel the sensation of heat and pressure, a new development in prosthetics.


The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is funding the $5.6 million center alongside industry partners for its Centers in Integrated Photonics Engineering Research (CIPhER) project. 


The goal of the project is to dramatically improve the lives of injured soldiers who return from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.


Volkan Otugen, department chair and professor of mechanical engineering in the Lyle School of Engineering, already has a lab set up with students—both undergraduate and graduate—developing the fiber optics. 


“What we propose to do is to use optics to sense neuronal activity, nerve activity, brain activity, in both directions,” he said.


Successful completion of this then renders the transfer of signals between artificial limbs and the brain virtually seamless. It also provides more movement, where as past technology has only allowed simple movements.


Currently, prosthetic devices require cables running through a person’s body to connect different parts for operation. Marc Christensen, department chair and professor of electrical engineering in the Lyle School of Engineering explained that while this process has been effective for two-way motions, it’s not easy for the person using it.


One patient at Walter Reed Army Medical Center has “gotten very good at manipulating his robotic pros limb,” Christensen said. 


“But he describes it like he’s bench pressing 200 pounds when he picks up a cup of coffee because he has to put that much concentration to flex the muscle to make the arm move the way he wants,” he said.


While SMU will be leading the center, its engineers will also be working with other universities.  Some of those include Vanderbilt University, Case Western Reserve University, the University of Texas at Dallas and the University of North Texas.


The various schools will work almost in a relay-like system, starting at SMU, and working down the line as each school brings a different development. 


Industrial partners include Lockheed Martin (Aculight), Plexon, Texas Instruments, National Instruments and MRRA.


Both Otugen and Christensen feel that their goal is obtainable. However, it isn’t right around the corner just because they’re leading a research center.


“It’s really like talking about making the first transistor, [or] talking about the first LCD display,” Christensen said. “This is a new device.” 


“The similar devices he’s [Otugen] been working on for nearly a decade,” he said. “No one’s ever tried to sense neuro-actions’ potentials like we’re talking about it.”

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