Introducing a one-armed drummer with a robotic prosthesis that doesn’t miss a beat!
The first time a musician with a crippling disability made international headlines was in the mid-1980s when Def Leppard featured drummer Rick Allen, who had lost his arm in a car accident. Allen went on to rehabilitate and continue to play drums with the use of a specialized electronic drum kit that allowed him to cover many of his lost functions with the use of foot pedals. He turned in a solid performance on the band’s next album, and he went on to be admired by drummers all over the world for his tenacity and ability.
Fast-forward to 2014! Professor Gil Weinberg, director of Georgia Tech’s School of Music Technology, has created a one-armed drummer’s dream—a robotic prosthesis that can be attached to an amputee and be technologically embedded into the arm. The prosthesis features motors that power drumsticks, one of which is controlled both by the musician’s arms and by muscle sensors that use electromyography. The second stick features an advanced artificial intelligence that allows it to listen to what the first stick is doing and improvise on time.
Weinberg says, “The second drumstick has a mind of its own. 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.”
The prosthesis in question was designed for Jason Barnes, who lost his right arm below the elbow after being electrocuted. Barnes built his own prosthesis, but found it lacking. That’s when Weinberg stepped up to the plate with the advanced robotic drumming prosthesis. “Now,” says Barnes, “I can flex and send signals to a computer that tightens or loosens the stick and controls the rebound.”
Weinberg elaborates on the second, artificially intelligent arm. “Jason can pull the robotic stick away from the drum when he wants to be fully in control, or he can allow it to play on its own and be surprised and inspired by his own arm responding to his drumming.”
Weinberg says that this prosthesis is only the beginning. He has acquired a grant from the National Science Foundation to expand the technology further, feeling that, in the future, it could be used by able-bodied people to control a mechanical third arm in time-sensitive operations that are not just restricted to music. Potential applications of the technology include surgery and mechanical repairs, where people could synchronize with electronic devices to improve speed and sensitivity in operations.
For Jason, however, it’s all in the rhythm. He can use the prosthesis to increase his speed and play syncopated polyrhythms in ways that able-bodied people can’t. “I’ll bet a lot of metal drummers might be jealous of what I can do now,” he says. “Speed is good. Faster is always better.”
Take a look at the videos to see the ‘three-armed cyborg’ in action. What do you think of ‘robotic rock ‘n’ roll?’