Breathing Controls Robotic Arm in Latest Tech Breakthrough

  • Brain Adaptability: Swiss researchers test humans’ ability to control an extra robotic arm without hindering concurrent tasks, aiming to understand the brain’s adaptability.
  • Virtual Reality Experiment: Volunteers wear VR goggles, controlling three arms with eye movements and diaphragm contractions. Successful execution of tasks indicates intuitive control.
  • Augmented Devices Challenges: Unlike prosthetics, augmented devices require new neural connections. However, experiments show the brain’s capacity to adapt and control these devices intuitively.
  • Muscle Training Discovery: Participants could control a computer mouse using underused auricular muscles behind the ears, showcasing the brain’s adaptability through training.
  • Practical Applications: The study is part of a project to develop a wearable robotic arm for daily assistance or search and rescue. Potential applications include aiding industrial workers and enhancing search-and-rescue efforts.
  • Future Possibilities: Researchers explore using vestigial ear muscles for arm control, envisioning a future with additional limbs for improved functionality in various fields, such as industry and emergency response.
Exploring cognitive strategies for augmenting the body with an extra arm using virtual reality.
© 2023 EPFL / Alain Herzog

In a groundbreaking study conducted by scientists in Switzerland, researchers are exploring the possibility of humans controlling an additional robotic arm without disrupting their ability to perform other tasks simultaneously.

Controlling Robotic Arms Explored in Swiss Study

The research, led by Silvestro Micera, a professor and neuroengineer at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, was recently published in the esteemed journal Science Robotics. Micera explains that the primary goal is to gain insights into the nervous system’s capabilities. By challenging the brain with a completely new task, researchers aim to understand the brain’s adaptability and enhance learning processes. The ultimate objective is to apply these findings to assistive devices for individuals with disabilities, rehabilitation after strokes, and similar applications.

Credit: YouTube/Reuters

The experimental setup involved participants wearing Virtual Reality (VR) goggles, presenting a scenario where they saw three arms, with the extra limb intentionally designed differently to minimize natural associations. Volunteers held onto an exoskeleton, controlling virtual left and right arms, while a belt around their waist measured their breathing and controlled the movement of the middle arm.

Giulia Dominijanni, a PhD student at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne, and her team created both physical robotic arms (third robotic arm) and virtual arms within VR environments. These arms were controlled through a combination of eye movements and diaphragm contractions. Remarkably, in tests involving 65 volunteers, participants were able to carry out various tasks successfully without affecting their breathing, speech, or vision.

Dominijanni emphasizes that unlike prosthetics that rely on existing nerve connections, augmented devices require entirely new connections, making them more challenging to engineer. However, the study reveals that the human brain can adapt to these devices and control them intuitively.

Martina Gini controls a simplified robotic arm with breathing. © 2023 EPFL / Alain Herzog, CC-BY-SA 1/3
Martina Gini controls a simplified robotic arm with breathing. © 2023 EPFL / Alain Herzog

The researchers also conducted experiments on breathing control using a real robotic arm attached to the user’s chest, moving in sync with diaphragm contractions. Notably, the study uncovered that people could be trained to control a computer mouse using muscles that are typically underutilized.

Senior scientist Solaiman Shokur highlights an intriguing finding: individuals could use auricular muscles (muscles behind the ears) to control the extra limb while still using their natural arms and engaging in regular activities.

While the study doesn’t explicitly mention it, Shokur reveals that the team observed participants successfully controlling a computer mouse using muscles that have lost functionality over evolutionary processes.

The research, part of a Swiss National Science Foundation project, aims to develop a wearable robotic arm for daily tasks and search-and-rescue missions. The team is exploring various control interfaces, including vestigial ear muscles, once used by our ancestors to pivot their ears for improved hearing.

Giulia Dominijanni envisions the potential applications of additional limbs, suggesting they could assist industrial workers in controlling machinery or enable search-and-rescue workers to navigate debris more efficiently. However, she acknowledges that, similar to current VR goggles, these devices may initially be expensive gadgets before becoming more accessible to the general public.

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Source(s): Reuters; NewScientist; EPFL

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