Scientists Develop a Robotic Arm That is Controlled by Breathing

A group of Swiss researchers have made a breakthrough in human-machine interface technology.

Apr 25, 2024
Scientists Develop a Robotic Arm That is Controlled by Breathing | A group of Swiss researchers have made a breakthrough in human-machine interface technology.

It is likely that every person around the world has been in a situation where they felt like they needed another arm;  whether carrying groceries, or trying to juggle, literally. Now, that dream is closer to reality. Researchers in Switzerland have created a robotic arm that can be moved by breathing. 

Robotic extra arm
The December 2023 study published in Science Robotics announced that a new age in human-machine interface technology has arrived. Scientists succeeded in creating a robotic arm that could be controlled by gaze and diaphragm movement. 

According to CGTN, the study, led by Dr. Silvestro Micera, the Bertarelli Foundation chair in translational neuroengineering at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne (EPFL) was aimed at producing a wearable robotic arm that could assist with day-to-day tasks or help in rescue operations.

In addition, Micera and his team believed that the study would provide researchers with insights into the human nervous system. 

We want to understand if our brains are hardwired to control what nature has given us, and we've shown that the human brain can adapt to coordinate new limbs in tandem with our biological ones,” Dr. Solaiman Shokur, one of the primary investigators of the study, told CGTN.

A Virtual Start
The researchers actually began their testing without the arm itself, according to Nature. Instead they tested the ability of gaze and diaphragm movement to control a virtual arm. 

Participants in the study were outfitted with virtual reality helmets that tracked their gaze. This oriented a virtual third arm, which appeared as if it was emerging from the middle of their chests. A belt strapped to the middle of their chests monitored their diaphragm movement so that they could use the way they breathed to elongate or shorten the virtual arm. 

Once that stage in the study was complete, the researchers developed an actual physical robotic arm that could elongate and rotate. It weighs less than two kilograms, which means that its weight would not be a burden to the wearer. The participants who had practiced on the virtual arm had a 90 percent success rate when asked to perform a simple task with the arm, while those with no experience had a 70 percent success rate. 

According to News CGTN, the next steps for the research team are to create a more complex arm that can carry out more complicated tasks. 

The practical and somewhat whimsical implications of the invention of a robotic third arm are easy to imagine. However, the real breakthrough is in the ways the robotic arm could potentially help in more vital areas, such as serving as aids for people with disabilities, help in search and rescue, and most importantly, paving the way for even more creative and important human-machine interface technologies.

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Tiki is a freelance writer, editor, and translator with a passion for writing stories. She believes in taking small actions to positively impact the world. She spends her free time reading, baking, creating art, and walking her rescue dog.