DARPA’s mind-con­trolled robotic arm does ev­ery­thing


This is the most ad­vanced arm in the world. This one can do any­thing your nat­u­ral arm can do, with the ex­cep­tion of the Vul­can V,” said Johnny Ma­theny, us­ing his right hand to mimic the hand greet­ing made fa­mous by Star Trek’s Leonard Ni­moy. “But un­less I meet a Vul­can, I won’t need it.” Ma­theny was at the Pen­tagon, May 11, 2016, as part of DARPA (De­fense Ad­vanced Re­search Projects Agency) “Demo Day” to show mil­i­tary per­son­nel the robotic arm he some­times wears as part of re­search funded by the DARPA, an agency of the US De­part­ment of De­fense re­spon­si­ble for the de­vel­op­ment of emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies for use by the mil­i­tary.

Ma­theny lost his real left arm to can­cer, and he said had doc­tors not cut it off – above the el­bow – the can­cer would have spread to the rest of his body. “I’d have been dead in three months,” he said.

Be­fore you are daz­zled by the ‘mind-con­trolled’ as­pect of the Ma­theny’s robotic arm, one of the most strik­ing things you no­tice is that the arm is not at­tached to his body with the reg­u­lar fiber­glass cup and straps that are com­mon to most pros­thetic arms. In­stead, there is piece of metal stick­ing out of the end of his bi­cep onto which the robotic arm can be at­tached. The metal de­vice has been sur­gi­cally im­planted into his arm, into the bone — a true man­ma­chine in­ter­face. That tech­nique is called ‘os­seoin­te­gra­tion,’ and he’s likely the first in the US to have that done.

But what’s really amaz­ing about the robotic arm he wears is that he doesn’t have to use his right hand to tell it what to do. In­stead, he uses the mus­cles and nerves in what re­mains of his left arm to send sig­nals to the robotic arm and hand. And then the arm and hand re­spond, just like a real arm.

“This is part of the Rev­o­lu­tion­iz­ing Pros­thet­ics Pro­gram, where we set out to re­store near-nat­u­ral up­per ex­trem­ity con­trol to our mil­i­tary ser­vice mem­bers who have lost limbs in ser­vice of our coun­try,” said Dr. Justin C. Sanchez, Di­rec­tor of the Bi­o­log­i­cal Tech­nolo­gies Of­fice at DARPA. “The goal is to con­trol the arm as nat­u­rally as pos­si­ble. Be­fore DARPA got into all of this, there weren’t a whole lot of op­tions for peo­ple liv­ing with that kind of con­di­tion. So we asked if we could de­velop an arm with the same size, weight, shape and grip strength com­pared to an adult hu­man arm.”

Sanchez said Ma­theny has had some pro­ce­dures done to remap some of the nerves in his arm so he is able to con­trol them in a dif­fer­ent way, to make use of the robotic arm.

“But it is a more nat­u­ral way to con­trol this arm, com­pared to switches or levers,” Sanchez said. Ma­theny bragged on the arm’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties. “So far this thing works great,” he said. “It’s the arm of the fu­ture. This arm here, it can do 45 pounds. I can take on any one of these big old bur­ley sol­diers around here. We’ll get a 45 pound weight and keep go­ing. I can keep go­ing till the bat­tery wears down. And when I feel it start­ing to go down, I say swap me out. They take it out, pop an­other bat­tery in, and I keep go­ing. I never miss a beat.”

The real ad­vances in the re­search be­ing done by DARPA, Sanchez said, goes be­yond the my­o­elec­tric con­trol that Ma­theny is now us­ing to con­trol his robotic arm. In­stead, Sanchez said, they want to pro­vide real, di­rect con­trol by the brain over the arm, over other pros­thet­ics, or over any de­vice.

“We are think­ing deeply about how di­rect neu­ral in­ter­faces in­ter­act with com­plex mil­i­tary sys­tems,” Sanchez said. “An air­craft is one of them.”

They had a video on dis­play at their booth in the Pen­tagon court­yard, where a com­pletely par­a­lyzed sub­ject is con­trol­ling an air­craft that is part of a video game, us­ing only her mind.

“If you really want to get to nat­u­ral con­trol, you have to do this — where we have hu­man sub­jects have di­rect neu­ral in­ter­faces in their brain,” he said. “They can think about mov­ing their robotic arm and the sig­nals come di­rectly out of their brain, process in the arm, and can ac­tu­ally move the arm.”

That kind of con­trol re­quires neu­ral im­plants into the sub­jects. And Sanchez said that the sig­nals be­tween the brain im­plants and the po­ten­tial pros­thet­ics don’t have to just flow in one di­rec­tion. They can put sen­sors in the pros­thetic that feed sig­nals back to the brain, so users can ‘feel’ again.

“We have not only move­ment, but also sen­sa­tion,” he said. “For our most re­cent sub­ject par­tic­i­pat­ing in this, we put sen­sors in their fin­ger­tips. And as you press on the fin­ger­tips, it sends sig­nals back to the brain and he can feel you are press­ing on his fin­ger­tips.”

Michael P. McLough­lin, the Chief En­gi­neer at the Re­search and Ex­ploratory De­vel­op­ment De­part­ment at Johns Hop­kins Ap­plied Physics Lab­o­ra­tory, said the ben­e­fits of the re­search they are do­ing for DARPA are aimed at mak­ing life nor­mal again for sol­diers and other ser­vice mem­bers who come back from con­flict with miss­ing limbs – to pro­vide nor­malcy for them again.

“A lot of ser­vice mem­bers to­day that have come back from the cur­rent con­flicts, they are teenagers, or in their 20s,” he said. “They have young fam­ily mem­bers, young kids. This is about get­ting them back to life. That’s what they want. They want to be able to go back and be able to do all the things we all did. This is about bring­ing them back to a ca­pa­bil­ity they had be­fore their in­jury.”

Ma­theny’s robotic arm is com­pletely ex­posed black com­pos­ite ma­te­rial and metal. You can see how it con­nects to his body, and you can see how it’s put to­gether. One won­ders if it will be cov­ered one day with a ma­te­rial that makes it ap­pear to be a real arm. But McLough­lin said that hasn’t been a pri­or­ity for the team de­vel­op­ing the tech­nol­ogy that makes it work. “The thing they are most in­ter­ested in is that it moves nat­u­rally,” he said of those who might ben­e­fit from it one day. “A lot of them like that look. They think it’s cool they have a robotic arm. It’s not so much a cos­metic thing, as it is func­tion­al­ity.”

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