Robotic limb turns drummer into three-armed musical cyborg

Watch out, Ringo. The robots are rising up and melding with humans to create a stick-wielding Cerberus.

Amanda Kooser
Freelance writer Amanda C. Kooser covers gadgets and tech news with a twist for CNET. When not wallowing in weird gear and iPad apps for cats, she can be found tinkering with her 1956 DeSoto.
Amanda Kooser
2 min read
Robotic drummer arm
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Robotic drummer arm

This is a different kind of drum machine.

Georgia Tech

Some drummers play so fast and furiously it seems like they must have three arms. A drummer test subject at the Georgia Institute of Technology actually does. The third is a robotic "smart arm" worn on the shoulder.

"The third arm provides a much richer and more creative experience, allowing the human to play many drums simultaneously with virtuosity and sophistication that are not otherwise possible," says Georgia Tech professor and project leader Gil Weinberg.

Creating a functioning robo-drum arm was a challenge. The arm not only needs to keep the beat (something computers already excel at), but it also needs to move between cymbals and drums and apply the right amount of pressure with each strike. Drummers get enough grief about keeping the volume down without having to curtail a robot arm with arena-rock aspirations.

The arm plays with a laudable amount of subtlety. It pays attention to the drummer, switching between the ride cymbal and the floor tom depending on which other parts of the drum the musician is using. It changes tempo in response to the drummer speeding up or slowing down.

Built-in accelerometers and motors help keep the robo-arm in position and on beat. The builders programmed the arm using motion-capture technology to give it human-like movements.

This isn't the first time Weinberg has ventured into the realm of cyborg drummers. His team built a robotic prosthetic arm for a drummer who lost his lower right arm in an accident.

The Georgia Tech researchers aren't content to just let a robot arm with a robot brain figure out how to be a rock star all by itself. The next challenge for the project is to control the arm using the drummer's brain patterns. Weinberg sees the same technology expanding into medical and other technical fields where it would be useful to have an extra helping hand.

One thing's for sure: We can look forward to some super-human drum solos as the technology advances.