Engineers have developed a more stable prosthetic leg — and a better way of designing them — that could make challenging terrain more manageable for people who have lost a lower leg. The cornerstone of the new design is a kind of tripod foot that responds to rough terrain by actively shifting pressure between three different contact points. As important as the foot is, the team also developed a tool for quickly emulating and improving their prototypes.

Outfitted with position sensors and motors, the foot can adjust its orientation to respond to varying terrain. (Credit: Stanford)

One area of particular interest is making prosthetic limbs that can better handle rough ground. The researchers thought the solution might be a tripod with a rear-facing heel and two forward-facing toes. Outfitted with position sensors and motors, the foot can adjust its orientation to respond to varying terrain, much as someone with an intact foot could move their toes and flex their ankles to compensate while walking over rough ground.

Rather than building a prosthetic limb someone could test in the real world, the team instead built a basic tripod foot, then hooked it up to powerful off-board motors and computer systems that control how the foot responds as a user moves over all kinds of terrain. In doing so, the team put their design focus on how the prosthesis should function.

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