Quirks & Quarks

Robotic arms get a performance boost by getting touchy-feely

Researchers have come up with a new way of connecting brain-controlled robotic arms - by tapping into the sense of touch. This gives users the ability to complete tasks at a level that’s comparable to able-bodied people.

New way of connecting brain-controlled robotic arms gives users the sense of touch

Nathan Copeland was the first person in the world to be implanted with this brain computer interface that taps into his vision but also his sense of touch. Here he uses the robotic arm, in the foreground, to complete a set of tasks with precision comparable to able-bodied people. (UPMC/Pitt Health Sciences)

Researchers have  successfully developed a robot arm that gives users a sense of touch. 

Robotic arms are controlled by what's called a brain-computer interface, which uses implanted electrodes to get signals directly from the brain and sends them to a computer inside the arm. In a new study, researchers from the University of Pittsburgh have been able to send signals the other way. They've connected a brain computer interface with the brain's touch sensors, so pressure sensors attached to the robotic arm can send signals to the brain.

"It actually just feels like their index finger is touching something because that's actually where the sensations come from on their own hand. We're just sort of faking it by stimulating the brain directly," said Dr. Robert Gaunt, an associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at the University of Pittsburgh.

The result is a prosthetic limb that could give users much greater control over what they're doing. In a video posted by the researchers, the test subject was able to complete a variety of tasks in half the time when the touch interface was applied.

"In quite a few of the cases, the tasks that we were doing were actually completed in what we call able-bodied performance time, the time that you or I would take to complete that same task," said Dr. Gaunt.

The research was published in the journal Science.

Listen to Dr. Gaunt's full interview with Bob McDonald at the link above.

Produced and written by Amanda Buckiewicz


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