Robotic arm gives amputee drummer better beats

Georgia Tech's Gil Weinberg has made music-playing robots in the past. Now he's tapped that technology to help a musician likely become the world's first drumming "cyborg."

Michael Franco
Freelancer Michael Franco writes about the serious and silly sides of science and technology for CNET and other pixel and paper pubs. He's kept his fingers on the keyboard while owning a B&B in Amish country, managing an eco-resort in the Caribbean, sweating in Singapore, and rehydrating (with beer, of course) in Prague. E-mail Michael.
Michael Franco
2 min read

One drumstick is controlled by muscle movement, the other "listens" and plays on its own. Georgia Tech

When drummer Jason Barnes lost his lower right arm to electrocution two years ago, his future as a musician didn't look too promising. But thanks to a new robotic arm invented by Professor Gil Weinberg, founding director of the Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology, he may soon be the envy of the drumming world.

That's because the new mechanical arm effectively gives Barnes the ability to use three different drumsticks while playing his kit. He holds the first in his left hand, as always. The other two are held by the robotic arm attached to Barnes' right bicep. One of those sticks is controlled by the up-and-down motion of Barnes' arm, as well as electrical impulses from his body measured by electromyography muscle sensors.

The other stick however, analyzes the rhythm being played and uses a built-in motor to improvise on its own, adding a dimension to drumming that's heretofore not seen on any stage we know of.

"The second drumstick has a mind of its own," Weinberg said in a statement. "The drummer essentially becomes a cyborg. It's interesting to see him playing and improvising with part of his arm that he doesn't totally control."

Barnes finds it more than interesting. "I'll bet a lot of metal drummers might be jealous of what I can do now," he said. "Speed is good. Faster is always better," he said, referring to the fact that the autonomous stick can move more quickly than humanly possible.

The drumming arm is an extension of Weinberg's previous work; among other thing, he has created one robot that could play the drums and one that could play the marimba. Both robots could jam with human counterparts thanks to programmed algorithms. The autonomous third stick uses similar technology to "listen" to what's being played and add its own appropriate track. If the drummer doesn't want to hear the extra stick, he can simply rotate his arm so it doesn't strike the drum.

Beyond making music, Weinberg sees applications for his technology in outer space or the operating room, where a third arm could help astronauts or surgeons orchestrate complex operations.

You can see Barnes trying out the device in the video below. He'll rock it in public for the first time at the Robotic Musicianship Demonstration and Concert at Kennesaw State University on March 22.