Researchers are making progress in the effort to develop safe and practical supernumerary robotic limbs.
- Unlike exoskeletons or prostheses, supernumerary robotic limbs function independently of the human skeleton.
- This new example of the technology attaches to the wearer's hips, and can lift 11 pounds.
- The arm currently isn't autonomous. Before A.I. can control supernumerary limbs, researchers first have to figure out how to make the technology understand and execute what the wearer wants it to do.
The world of wearable technology is set to evolve far beyond today's smartwatches and fitness trackers. One burgeoning field is wearable robots. From exosuits that help us walk more efficiently to robotic arms that give people superhuman strength, wearable robots could transform the way we interface with the physical world in the future.
One glimpse into that strange future: A robotic arm that attaches to the wearer's hip and includes a three-fingered claw. The arm can help people perform various tasks, like picking fruit, painting a wall, playing badminton and smashing a hole through a wall, as a recent video shows.
Developed by researchers at the Université de Sherbrooke in Canada, the hydraulic arm currently isn't autonomous — it requires a third-party to manually control it with a remote. But from a proof-of-concept standpoint, it shows how the technology could be used in the future as a kind of robotic assistant. The 9-pound arm can:
- Lift 11 pounds
- Swing at 7.6 mph
- Move with three degrees of freedom
Supernumerary robotic limbs
When movies depict wearable robots, they usually show exoskeletons ("Iron Man") or prostheses (Luke Skywalker's robotic hand). But supernumerary robotic limbs — like the new robotic arm — seem to be an underrepresented genre, at least in the popular consciousness. This genre describes robotic limbs that function independently of the human skeleton, and which "actively perform tasks similar to or beyond natural human capabilities," as a 2017 research paper states.
One hurdle in developing safe and effective supernumerary robotic limbs is figuring out how to attach the technology to the body so that it doesn't interfere with the wearer. For example, a robotic arm could throw someone off balance if it swings its arm too fast, or it could become uncomfortable if it's not attached strategically.
With the new robotic arm, the researchers attached the device to the wearer's hips with a rigid harness, close to the center of mass. It seems to work well enough, though you can see how someone could be thrown off balance. There's also the fact that it must be physically tethered to a nearby power system.
Robotic limbs and human intent
But the biggest obstacle in developing supernumerary robotic limbs lies in artificial intelligence. For a robotic arm (or legs, fingers, etc.) to be practical, the device has to understand and execute what the wearer wants it to do. Here's how Catherine Véronneau, the lead author of a recent paper about the technology, described this problem to IEEE Spectrum:
"For instance, if the job of a supernumerary pair of arms is opening a door while the user is holding something, the controller should detect when is the right moment to open the door. So, for one particular application, it's feasible. But if we want that SRL to be multifunctional, it requires some AI or intelligent controller to detect what the human wants to do, and how the SRL could be complementary to the user (and act as a coworker). So there are a lot of things to explore in that vast field of "human intent."
This is huge news for the 285 million visually impaired people around the world.
For the 285 million visually impaired people around the world, the technological advancements of our day and the conveniences of everyday life enjoyed by the sighted are rarely experienced. From libraries without braille books, to street signs and smart devices, navigating life is an entirely different and much more difficult experience. Noticing this divide in university, where sighted students could instantly get information from smart devices, while a visually impaired classmate had to lug around heavy Braille books, Eric Kim was inspired to develop a cheap impairment-friendly smartwatch.
The Dot Watch—the first smart watch for visually impaired people—is a wearable device, which instead of presenting information through text and graphics, uses a refreshable Braille display. The display is made of 24 touch sensors and utilizes electro-dynamic cells to relay information. With the help of those sensors the device knows when the finger of the user reaches the last letter on the display and instantly refreshes the screen with new letters. In this way the user can read across the small 43mm (1.7in) radius circle.
In addition to the typical watch functionalities, such as an alarm, accelerometer, and showing time down to the seconds, the watch can also display notifications from social media, text messages, directions, and other customizable information with the help of an app that pairs certain applications with the device. In addition, Dot is an open system, so anyone can develop apps for it.
So far there have already been 140,000 pre-orders of the watch from 13 different countries. English and Korean versions will be coming from the first of April, 2017, and will cost about $290 USD. Dot Inc. has received over $5 million in investment and has secured 31 patents, aspiring to be the leader in the assistive-device market.
The company is also taking an active role in improving Braille literacy across developing countries, where about 75% of the world's blind population is located. They are pairing with Korea International Cooperation Agency to supply a low cost device—Dot Mini—to 1 million visually impaired people in Kenya.