Reminder: One Reason Why Robotics Is Very, Very Important

A brain-controlled robot arm allows Jan Scheuermann to take a bite of chocolate

1 min read
Reminder: One Reason Why Robotics Is Very, Very Important

We've been posting a lot recently about military robotics, and having discussions about whether or not we should be scared of robots with weapons. One of the points that I made was that whatever we think of the military's pronounced interest in robots, it does end up paying for all kinds of things, and here is one amazing example that's funded by DARPA (among others): a 7 DoF brain-controlled robotic arm and hand that has allowed this woman take a bite of chocolate unassisted for the first time in a decade.

Jan Scheuermann has had quadriplegia for the last ten years, which means that she can move her head and neck, but nothing lower down. She's part of a program at  the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine which involved implanting electrodes directly into her brain, and using them to intercept brain signals that Jan can then use to control a robotic arm. The video is nine minutes long, but you won't be sorry to watch the entire thing, I promise.

Did you catch that quote at about five minutes in?

"I used to have to think, 'up, clockwise, down, forward, back...' Now I just look at the target, and Hector [the arm is called Hector] goes there."

That's incredible, isn't it? It's a fairly invasive interface at the moment, and it's not exactly a Luke Skywalker arm quite yet, but such a thing is now near-future technology instead of something that you can only find in a galaxy far, far away.

Amazing.

[ UPMC ] via [ BBC ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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