Robotic Drumming Prosthesis Gives Musician an Extra Hand

Rob Felt / Georgia Tech

It may seem sometimes that drummers have more arms than the rest of us, but of course they only have the two — and losing one of those can mean the end of their career. A new robotic prosthesis could potentially not only give a drummer his or her hand back, but add a spare.

The prosthesis was created for Jason Barnes, a student at the Atlanta Institute of Music and Media. Barnes lost much of his right arm in a work-related accident, but continued playing with a modified artificial arm.

While he can play, his new hand doesn't allow for the variety of grips and tensions he had before. Jason and his teacher appealed to Georgia Tech Center for Music Technology's Gil Weinberg for help with the project after seeing Weinberg's other work in musical robotics.

"I couldn't say no," wrote Weinberg in an email to NBC News. "So I wrote an NSF [National Science Foundation] proposal to fund it, recruited a team... we plan to write a much larger NSF proposal and build a new and improved device."

Weinberg's team built the Robotic Drum Prosthesis. It's controlled via Barnes's bicep muscle, which it monitors and responds to — and that's not even the coolest part. There's a second stick alongside the first that listens to the rhythm and plays along with a complementary beat. That means he is essentially playing with an extra arm that literally has a mind of its own.

"I’ll bet a lot of metal drummers might be jealous of what I can do now,” Barnes told Georgia Tech.

Rob Felt / Georgia Tech

GTCMT is familiar with this type of thing: Its researchers and students have created numerous devices and robots that play along with or improvise music or rhythms. In fact, later this month the department is participating in Kennesaw State University's Robotic Musicianship Demonstration, where Barnes will perform publicly for the first time.

Hopefully this robotic arm will be made more widely available once more research is done. There are plenty of other interesting examples of musical tech on the Georgia Tech School of Music's research page.