If you are a Marvel comic book geek (or, heck, if you watched Sam Raimi’s excellent 2004 movie Spider-Man 2), you are probably familiar with Doctor Octopus: The scheming scientist character who benefits from the assistance of four highly advanced mechanical arms. In a case of life imitating art, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed technology bringing similar robotic limbs into the real world.
“The Supernumerary Robotic Limbs (SRL) are a wearable robot that augments its human user by providing her or him with additional robotic limbs,” researcher Federico Parietti told Digital Trends. “These robotic limbs can move independently from the natural arms and legs of the user, and therefore can enable the execution of entirely new, complex tasks that would be impossible with only the four natural limbs. The SRL can also coordinate with the user in order to improve the performance or the safety of normal tasks.”
The control method described in the study involved training wearers to use muscles in their torsos that are not part of our normal movement range. Users who were tested with this control system found that they were able to quickly learn how to control the robotic limbs, independently from their regular limbs.
In terms of what the robot limbs can be used for… well, the sky is the limit. A few particularly beneficial scenarios jump out, though. One is in manufacturing, particularly when it comes to heavy industry. “For example, [in the the aircraft industry], human workers are essential because the tasks are extremely complicated and cannot yet be performed by autonomous robots,” Parietti continued. “However, these tasks are fatiguing and require people to work in uncomfortable positions or to lift heavy tools. The extra limbs can help with all of that, by supporting the body of the user or lifting the tools. They can also secure the user to a scaffold, preventing falls.”
Another possible use involves assisting elderly or rehabilitating patients who experience small locomotion problems. “[In some cases, people] don’t really need to be confined to a wheelchair,” Parietti said. “They would simply benefit from wearing some ‘autonomous crutches’ that can sync with their gait and help them when needed, providing support and avoiding falls. The extra limbs can do just that — and they leave the upper part of the body free to move, meaning that your arms are not busy operating crutches.”
While this isn’t the only high-tech example we have seen of either additional limbs or assistive robot technology, it is definitely captured our imagination. “New exciting research directions include adding more movement possibilities to the robotic limbs, and experimenting our control technique with complex manufacturing tasks,” Parietti noted.
A paper on the work was recently presented at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA).