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Prosthetic Sculptures Duplicate Faces of Wounded U.S. Soldiers

With the increased number of wounded U.S. soldiers from the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, technology is being developed to replace injured faces with prosthetic sculptures. Researcher and sculptor David Hanson discusses the new robotic technology and the problems associated with duplicating a human face.

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  • SUSAN DENTZER:

    Duplicating or replacing a human face is a really complicated problem. Exactly what is the problem?

  • DAVID HANSON:

    The problem with the repairing of the human face is the complexity of the organ structure. You have tissues, facial tissues, the muscles, the mucosa, an incredible intersection of complex functions in the face. And not only does it have to maintain the integrity of the sinus and digestive tract, the breathing pathways, you also have to achieve the cosmetic function. We are social creatures and the face has to look good and it has to move well too or else it can be disconcerting.

    You have many types of tissues and organs that come together and do a lot of very important human activities. Breathing is done through the face, eating, as well as the social functions of the face. The face has to look good. It has to move well also. If it doesn't move it's disconcerting.

  • SUSAN DENTZER:

    And nature does a really great job of that. How good are we at doing it, as human beings trying to recreate what nature already achieved?

  • DAVID HANSON:

    In robotics, we're pretty good at achieving that, but combining robotics with an injured face to restore facial expressions is extremely challenging because you have to maintain those biological functions. You have to allow the face to breathe and eat and you have to prevent drooling and this kind of thing. So combining the technologies with the face is very challenging.

  • SUSAN DENTZER:

    How would one think about then taking somebody's whose face had been mostly blown away and putting a robotic prosthesis, a face prosthesis, on top of it?

  • DAVID HANSON:

    To restore the cosmetic appearance of an injured soldier's face, you would need to fit the robotics to the face, contain all of the power systems, actuators, that is motors and sensors, within the appliance and have the appliance be easily maintained, biocompatible, compatible with your tissues and mimic the soldier's existing facial expressions so the soldier would have to be able to control that by, by thinking. It's a lot to put into one small package.

  • SUSAN DENTZER:

    But you think doable.

  • DAVID HANSON:

    Eminently doable. The key is to reduce the power consumption of the expressive materials which is something we focused on with the robots that we're building, because we want these to walk around and interact with us. To do that you have to be able to power it off of batteries. So tuning the materials, it's a golden age in material science, so being able to tune the material properties for low power expressions is very doable.

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