This Drummer Has a Third Arm

By flexing his muscles, Jason Barnes can send signals to the computer in his prosthesis to tighten or loosen his grip on drumstick.

Photo by Georgia Tech.

It would be pretty amazing to have three arms, but it would feel even stranger to go from one to three. At Georgia Tech, a music technology researcher, Gil Weinberg, is taking the work he’s done on robot musicians and using it to create prosthetics for amputees. Rick Allen from Def Leppard is back!

The prosthetic is really two arms in one. The first uses a computer to process physical inputs from the wearer as she flexes her muscles. But the second portion moves autonomously, improvising along with music. There is currently one prototype of the prosthesis that was made especially for drummer, Jason Barnes. Barnes lost his right arm below the elbow two years ago in an accident. Since he is a student at the Atlanta Institute of Music and Media, he had the resources to build himself a prosthesis, but it was limited, and he couldn’t really play the drums while wearing it, even though he could move the elbow of the device.

The Georgia Tech prosthesis is different because its sensors respond to fine differences in Barnes’ bicep muscle movements, which translate to more precise control over the drumstick. “Now I can flex and send signals to a computer that tightens or loosens the stick and controls the rebound,” said Barnes in a press release.

Since the second “arm” moves and drums on its own, Barnes has control over whether he wants to use it at a given time. Weinberg said in the press release, “Jason can pull the robotic stick away from the drum when he wants to be fully in control. Or he can allow it to play on its own and be surprised and inspired by his own arm responding to his drumming.”

Having a third arm at all is weird to think about, much less one that thinks and drums on its own, but for someone dealing with the loss of an arm it’s kind of cool to get a bonus. “I’ll bet a lot of metal drummers might be jealous of what I can do now,” Barnes said. The cyborgs shall inherit the earth.