• Professor Hugh Herr of the Media Lab is shown here addressing h2.0, a one-day symposium in May 2007 that focused on ushering in a new era in human adaptability.

    Photo / Donna Coveney

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Herr wins $250,000 Heinz Award


Professor Hugh Herr, a double amputee whose work has led to the development of new prosthetic innovations that merge body and machine, has won the 13th annual Heinz Award for Technology, the Economy and Employment. The award is among the largest individual achievement prizes in the world.

Herr, of the Media Lab, was recognized for "breakthrough innovations in prosthetics and orthotics." He is among six distinguished Americans to receive one of the $250,000 awards presented in five categories by the Heinz Family Foundation.

Herr is the fifth member of the MIT faculty to receive a Heinz Award. The others are Institute Professor Mildred Dresselhaus, Institute Professor Robert Langer, Institute Professor Mario Molina and Institute Professor John Harbison.

"Everything about Dr. Herr is an expression of the triumph of the human spirit over adversity," said Teresa Heinz, chairman of the Heinz Family Foundation. "His breakthrough advances in rehabilitation technologies are immeasurably improving the quality of life for thousands of people with physical challenges, but for him, every breakthrough is just an invitation to push harder and do more. Accomplished yet modest, determined yet good natured, he approaches his work with great skill and great wonder. Both his life and his inventions demonstrate what an unbeatable combination that is."

With more than 36,000 new amputees in the United States every year--including hundreds of American soldiers who have lost limbs in the War in Iraq and Afghanistan--Herr is helping improve mobility and enhance the quality of life for many physically challenged people around the world. The holder (or co-holder) of numerous patents, including the Computer-Controlled Artificial Knee (commercially available as the Rheo Knee), the Active Ankle-Foot Orthosis, and the world's first Powered Ankle-Foot Prosthesis, he is advancing an emerging field of science that applies the principles of muscle mechanics, neural control and human biomechanics to guide the design of biomimetic robots, human rehabilitation devices and other technologies.

Most recently, Herr and his Biomechatronics research group at the Media Lab have developed a robotic ankle-foot prosthesis capable of propelling the wearer forward and varying its stiffness over irregular terrain, successfully mimicking the action of a biological ankle, and, for the first time, providing amputees with a truly humanlike gait. This new ankle is light, flexible, and--most importantly--generates energy for walking beyond that which can be released from a spring alone. "It mimics the elegance of nature," explains Herr, "where a muscle-like robotic assist releases three times the power of conventional prostheses to propel the body upward and forward in walking."

At age 17, Herr lost both legs below the knee in a mountain climbing accident, but returned to the classroom after a few years to earn an undergraduate degree in physics, a master's degree in mechanical engineering from MIT and a Ph.D. in biophysics from Harvard. Today, his work at the Media Lab focuses on human amplification and rehabilitation systems - technologies that interact with human limbs, mimicking biological performance and amplifying function.

Herr predicts that in 5 to 10 years, leg amputees will be able to run faster and move with a lower metabolic rate than people with biological limbs.

"The nature of my work has been incredibly gratifying, not only by virtue of the impact it has on those of us with physical challenges, but also for its potential impact on the larger population as a whole," Herr said. "This field is still in its infancy, and I have great hope that it can be applied to a broad range of utility--to make healthy bodies better and stronger, to create new forms of mobility and to expand our capacity to perform beyond human limits. My thanks go out to the Heinz Family Foundation for recognizing me--and by extension my many colleagues over the years--with this magnificent honor."

The Heinz Awards will be presented Oct. 22 at a private ceremony in Pittsburgh.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on September 12, 2007 (download PDF).


Topics: Health sciences and technology, Mechanical engineering, Media Lab, Artificial intelligence, Awards, honors and fellowships, Faculty

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