Watch: A wearable robot arm lets you be a 3-armed drummer

18 Feb 2016

The robotic arm and drum stick image via Georgia Tech

If researchers from the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech) have their way, drummers could soon have an extra arm at their disposal to create some rather complicated rhythms, but it could have even further-reaching consequences.

The development of a wearable robot arm follows the developing trend of exosuits, which are being created and tinkered with to give humans increased physical strength and ability, both in terms of everyday working life and to help those who have lost a limb or have other physical conditions.

This arm, however, is aimed at giving the wearer increased abilities and, in this case, the ability to play the drums with three arms, instead of two, although the legendary one-armed drummer Rick Allen will likely be eyeing this with interest.

Future Human

The arm developed by Georgia Tech isn’t just a remote-controlled robotic arm, however, as the researchers who created it say it is a smart arm capable of listening to the music being played in a room or studio and then improvising a beat on the drum.

So, for example, it will be able to judge whether the drummer is playing at a fast or slow tempo and change its rhythm accordingly.

Likewise, the robotic arm uses accelerometers to judge distance and proximity to the drum kit and adjust to be at the perfect spot to play, say, the symbol and then plays just like a human would, with the researchers having programmed its movements from motion-capture footage.

While you can see from the video that it’s not exactly going to turn any drummer into the likes of John Bonham, the research team led by Prof Gil Weinberg says the next step is to connect the arm to the drummer’s brainwaves using an electroencephalogram (EEG) to develop patterns and predict what the drummer wants to do.

But it’s not just music that the smart robotic arm is being designed for, as Weinberg also sees it being used in the operating theatre.

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

“Music is based on very timely, precise movements. It’s the perfect medium to try this concept of human augmentation and a third arm.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic