MIT Robotics Lab Creates Extra Limbs that Operate on Their Own

It's like something from a Marvel comic book.

Someone better start thinking about assembling a crew of superheroes because MIT robotics engineers just unleashed a new project that’s reminiscent of an evil villain from a comic book series.

OK, so researchers from MIT’s d’Arbeloff Laboratory for Information Systems and Technology aren’t looking to take over the city with their Dr. Octopus-esque robotic limbs. But they are hoping to make an impact on how we multitask and handle everyday challenges that can often require more than two hands—or legs.

This week, at the 2014 IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Hong Kong, Harry Asada, Ford Professor of Engineering and director of the d’Arbeloff lab, presented one of the group’s Supernumerary Robotic Limbs (SRLs) projects, which when strapped to a person’s shoulders operates autonomously to help conquer things like securing a ceiling panel or holding open a door.

According to IEEE Spectrum’s blog on automatons and emerging robotics technologies—like MIT’s shoulder-mounted spare limbs—the SRL reacts to what a user is doing with their arms based on acceleration and motion, in order to figure out how to move on its own. By monitoring two “inertial measurement units” that the person using the robot is wearing on their wrists, the machine picks up the information and then essentially mimics that motion. Information is also transmitted to the robot from a third sensor strapped to the base of the shoulder mount. “The goal of our work is to build a co-robot that becomes a functional extension of the human body,” according to a mission statement on the lab’s website. “SRL must respond to the human movements, coordinate its actions, and communicate with the human in a natural and intuitive manner. The overarching goal of this project is to study a new type of co-robots that is perceived to be an extension of the human body, working closely with the wearer.”

The lab is also working on a second exoskeleton, which instead of being strapped to a person’s shoulders is fastened around their waist, and can act as both an extra pair of arms or legs, depending on the user’s preference. “The robotic arms are attached to the main structure in correspondence of the iliac crest, the thick edge of the hip bone. This minimizes the interference with human motion and maximizes the robotic limbs’ workspace, allowing them to act both as arms and as legs,” according to researchers.

Luckily, the pair of projects haven’t been combined, so the threat of a Marvel-like takeover isn’t imminent. To learn more about the limbs, and what the aim of the research is, watch this video shot by MIT officials, where Asada explains how it all works.