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Robotic Arms Transform Drummers into Cyborgs

Kristopher Sturgis

February 19, 2016

3 Min Read
Robotic Arms Transform Drummers into Cyborgs

Engineers from Georgia Tech have developed a wearable robotic limb that can mirror arm movements, and even respond to music in the surrounding environment. Similar technology could also be used by surgeons.

Kristopher Sturgis

cyborg drum

The two-foot long "smart arm" was developed to attach to the drummer's shoulder, and can respond to human gestures when music is played. The project, developed by researchers at GT's Center for Music Technology, is aimed at using robotics to push the limits of what humans can do and enabling people missing an arm to play complicated rhythms.

GT professor Gil Weinberg oversees the project, which recently received funding from the National Science Foundation. He says the arm was designed to mimic the movements of the drummer, complimenting the music being played. For example, when the drummer moves to play the high hat cymbal, the robotic limb positions itself over the ride cymbal and matches the rhythm.

He even believes this kind of technology could be of use outside the realm of music.

"Imagine if doctors could use a third arm to bring them tools, supplies or even participate in surgeries," he said. "Technicians could use an extra hand to help with repairs and experiments."

The arm was also equipped with built-in accelerometers, which allow the robotic limb to remain aware of its location relative to the drum kit at all times. That way, if the drummer decides to switch to the snare drum, the robotic limb can adjust its position to play the tom. It also contains on-board motors that ensure the drumstick is always parallel to the surface of the drumhead or cymbal. The arm even functions with human motion capture technology, enabling it to move naturally with intuitive gestures.

"If you augment humans with smart, wearable robotics, they could interact with their environment in a much more sophisticated manner," Weinberg said in a statement. "The third arm provides a much richer and more creative experience, allowing the human to play many drums simultaneously with virtuosity and sophistication that are otherwise not possible."

Prosthetic arm technologies are seeing exciting breakthroughs as engineers from across the globe seek to innovate new artificial limbs in creative ways. A recent Department of Defense program announced $60 million in funding toward research that could eventually pave the way for Star Wars-type prosthetics within the next decade.

As for this prosthetic device, it can already function in similarly advanced ways, as the arm was developed to learn how the user's body moves and complement the activity. Weinberg says the arm was designed to become a part of the user, adding that machines are no longer completely separate from humans, but are slowly becoming a part of humans.

The robotic arm was built by Weinberg and a team of student researchers after they developed a robotic prosthesis for an Atlanta drummer, in an effort to help the man to continue pursuing his musical passion after losing his arm in an accident. The success they found during the process is what led to the creation of the "third arm" robotic limb that could turn anyone into a cyborg drummer.

Weinberg says that the next step for the technology is to link the arm's movement to brain activity. He and his team have already begun experimenting with an electroencephalogram headband that can detect brain patterns. The group is hoping the headband can help them identify patterns that would allow the arm to react when a musician simply thinks about changing movement or tempo.

"Music is based on very timely, precise movements," Weinberg says. "It's the perfect medium to try this concept of human augmentation and a third arm."

Learn more about cutting-edge medical devices at BIOMEDevice Boston, April 13-14, 2016.

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About the Author(s)

Kristopher Sturgis

Kristopher Sturgis is a freelance contributor to MD+DI.

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