David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
from the world's big
Start Learning

This wearable robot arm can hold fruit and punch through walls

Researchers are making progress in the effort to develop safe and practical supernumerary robotic limbs.

Université de Sherbrooke
  • 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."

LIVE EVENT | Radical innovation: Unlocking the future of human invention

Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.

Big Think LIVE

Add event to calendar

AppleGoogleOffice 365OutlookOutlook.comYahoo

Keep reading Show less

NASA's idea for making food from thin air just became a reality — it could feed billions

Here's why you might eat greenhouse gases in the future.

Jordane Mathieu on Unsplash
Technology & Innovation
  • The company's protein powder, "Solein," is similar in form and taste to wheat flour.
  • Based on a concept developed by NASA, the product has wide potential as a carbon-neutral source of protein.
  • The man-made "meat" industry just got even more interesting.
Keep reading Show less

Navy SEALs: How to build a warrior mindset

SEAL training is the ultimate test of both mental and physical strength.

  • The fact that U.S. Navy SEALs endure very rigorous training before entering the field is common knowledge, but just what happens at those facilities is less often discussed. In this video, former SEALs Brent Gleeson, David Goggins, and Eric Greitens (as well as authors Jesse Itzler and Jamie Wheal) talk about how the 18-month program is designed to build elite, disciplined operatives with immense mental toughness and resilience.
  • Wheal dives into the cutting-edge technology and science that the navy uses to prepare these individuals. Itzler shares his experience meeting and briefly living with Goggins (who was also an Army Ranger) and the things he learned about pushing past perceived limits.
  • Goggins dives into why you should leave your comfort zone, introduces the 40 percent rule, and explains why the biggest battle we all face is the one in our own minds. "Usually whatever's in front of you isn't as big as you make it out to be," says the SEAL turned motivational speaker. "We start to make these very small things enormous because we allow our minds to take control and go away from us. We have to regain control of our mind."
Keep reading Show less

How COVID-19 will change the way we design our homes

Pandemic-inspired housing innovation will collide with techno-acceleration.

Maja Hitij/Getty Images
COVID-19 is confounding planning for basic human needs, including shelter.
Keep reading Show less
Scroll down to load more…