A tear-jerking introduction of the technology
A cerebrally controlled robotic system is being developed by a team of researchers from Brown University, Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital and a host of others could give paralyzed people the ability to use robotic limbs to manipulate objects for themselves. Called ‘BrainGate’, the brain-controlled system allows the user to control a robotic limb through thought. To do this, the team implants a wireless microelectrode array (Neural Interface System) at 4 X 4mm directly on the motor cortex portion of the brain that controls motor function. The series of electrodes (100 in all) on the chip pick up the brain's activity associated with arm movement and sends the signals to a series of computers that use software (unknown at this time) to decode the brains activity. The computers then translate those signals into a series of instructions that tell a robotic arm to move and grasp an object based on the user’s desired intentions. The researchers are presently using two types of robotic arms, which are being continuously developed by DLR Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics and DEKA Research and Development Corporation.
DLR robotic hand/arm concept
The bigger of the two robotic arms being used by the researchers is DLR’s Hand Arm System, which is an external robotic arm made for more robust applications where impacts with heavy objects are nonconsequential (factory and warehouse work?). The arm consists of a series of mechatronic compliance actuators with 52 drives and over 100 position sensors. The units hand alone features 38 individual tendons with each connected to an individual motor to provide tension and stiffness. The fingers use a similar configuration that uses two separate motors for individual grasping and tension based on the object being manipulated. The arm is so robust that you can actually beat it with a baseball bat without damaging any of the electronics.
Deka arm system
The second arm that the team is working with is DEKA Research and Development’s ‘Luke’ Arm (named after Luke Skywalker's mechanical hand). The arm is actually a robotic prosthesis that was designed for amputee patients and was developed as a DARPA tetraplegia project. The titanium Arm was designed to be roughly the same size as a typical human appendage and houses all of its electronics, motors and actuators inside (exactly how and what technology was used is currently unknown). The prosthesis features 18 degrees of movement which was accomplished by using rigid-to-flex circuit boards that were folded into ‘origami’ shapes placed inside the titanium housing. A vibrational motor at the top of the arm lets the user know how much pressure is needed to grasp an object through varying degrees vibration depending if the wearer is holding an egg or a brick.
(All images and video courtesy of Crown Institute for Brain Science)