Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Controlling Novel Robotic Third Arm with Diaphragm Movement


Neuroengineer Silvestro Micera, known widely for his work in developing technological solutions for sensory and motor function restoration, has now moved into uncharted territory. In a new study published in Science Robotics, Micera and his team revealed the successful control of an extra robotic third arm using diaphragm movement, taking robotics into a new era of augmentation for healthy individuals. A world where you have two or three arms, one controlled not by your familiar muscles but by the subtle rhythm of your breath, is becoming a reality.

Robotic Third Arm Project

This project, nestled within the larger Robotic Third Arm initiative, rises above conventional neuro-engineering. Micera’s study is an integral part of the Robotic Third Arm project, previously funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation; it aims to provide wearable robotic arms for daily assistance and search and rescue missions. The project moves beyond conventional neuroengineering by exploring the cognitive limits of controlling an additional robotic limb.

Unlocking the Brain’s Potential

Micera emphasized the study’s broader implications and said, “The main motivation of this third arm control is to understand the nervous system.” By challenging the brain with this unique task, researchers hope to obtain valuable insights into its flexibility and adaptability. With this knowledge, Micera believes valuable insights can be gained, paving the way for assistive devices for individuals with disabilities and rehabilitation protocols post-stroke.

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A Continuum Between Rehabilitation and Augmentation

Co-Principal Investigator of the study, Solaiman Shokur, elaborates on the research’s objective, stating, “It’s about acquiring new motor functions, enhancement beyond the existing functions of a given user, be it a healthy individual or a disabled one. From a nervous system perspective, it’s a continuum between rehabilitation and augmentation.”

Diaphragm Control Test

But how does this magical marvel work? The researchers turned to the often-overlooked muscle – the diaphragm, the powerhouse behind every breath we take. Their innovative design utilized a belt sensor to capture subtle diaphragm contractions, translating them into commands for the robotic arm. To explore the cognitive constraints of augmentation, researchers developed a virtual environment where a healthy user’s diaphragm movement controlled a virtual arm. Diaphragm control worked like a natural process and did not interfere with actions like speaking or controlling biological arms.

Robotic Third Arm Test with Diaphragm Control

To test this breakthrough, researchers performed some experiments with several control groups. The test occurred in the virtual environment, where the users wear a belt measuring diaphragm movement, with a VR headset displaying three arms. The user can reach out with the left, right, or symmetric hand. The control strategy proved independent of biological limbs.

The study also successfully tested diaphragm control with a physical robotic third arm, showcasing that users could extend and retract a rod by contracting their diaphragm. This real-world experiment showcased the clear nature of diaphragm control and its feasibility for practical applications.

Alternative Control Strategies With Vestigial Ear Muscles

In an innovative approach for this new invention, vestigial ear muscles were tested for controlling a computer mouse through fine ear muscle movement while not part of the published study, these alternative strategies open doors for potential rehabilitation protocols for individuals with motor deficiencies and show great promise in them.

Real-Life Applications

Micera envisions the future application of these control strategies in more complex robotic devices, emphasizing the need to explore real-life tasks inside and outside the laboratory. As the study marks a step from repairing the human body to augmentation with this robotic third arm project, the potential of this neuroengineering approach holds promise for transforming the way we interact with technology.

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