November 12, 2007
A robot arm controlled by the user’s thoughts could one day make life easier for people with paralysis. © Fraunhofer FIRST

People who suffer from paralysis are confronted with many situations in which they need a helping hand.

In the Brain2Robot project, an international team of researchers has developed a robot control system that works on the basis of electroencephalograph (EEG) signals. This new idea could enable patients with severe motor disabilities to regain some of their lost autonomy.

The patient controls the robot arm with their thoughts: If they think about wanting to move their right hand, the robot arm is activated. If they imagine themselves moving their left hand, the robot arm will, for instance, lift up a cup of coffee.

But how can thoughts be translated into instructions for the robot? The solution is based on a concept known as a brain-computer interface (BCI). Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Computer Architecture and Software Technology FIRST and the Charité hospital in Berlin have been working on this type of interface for almost seven years. For the input, they use a perfectly normal electroencephalogram (EEG), just like the ones used in everyday clinical practice.

Electrodes attached to the patient’s scalp measure the brain’s electrical signals, which are amplified and transmitted to a computer. Highly efficient algorithms analyze these signals using a self-learning technique.

The software is capable of detecting changes in brain activity that take place even before a movement is carried out. It can recognize and distinguish between the patterns of signals that correspond to an intention to raise the left or right hand, and extract them from the pulses being fired by millions of other neurons in the brain. These neural signal patterns are then converted into control instructions for the computer.

“The aim of the project is to help people with severe motor disabilities to carry out everyday tasks. The advantage of our technology is that it is capable of translating an intended action directly into instructions for the computer,” says team leader Florin Popescu.

The Brain2Robot project has been granted around 1.3 million euros in research funding under the EU’s sixth Framework Programme (FP6). Its focus lies on developing medical applications, in particular control systems for prosthetics, personal robots and wheelchairs. The researchers have also developed a “thought-controlled typewriter”, a communication device that enables severely paralyzed patients to pick out letters of the alphabet and write texts.

The robot arm could be ready for commercialization in just a few years’ time. BCI technology has potential uses in a great many applications: It could be used, for instance, for playing video games, or as part of safety systems for automobiles providing driver monitoring and driver assistance functions.

The development team will be presenting their robot arm at Medica 2007 in Düsseldorf from November 14 to 17 (Hall 3, Stand F92).

Source: Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft

Explore further: Robots that teach us about ourselves

Related Stories

Robots that teach us about ourselves

October 29, 2015

Janie, a quiet twelve-year-old girl sits at the table, her hands dropped casually in her lap. She doesn't turn to face you as you walk across the room and sit in the chair beside her. When you ask a question, she won't meet ...

First signals from CALET on the ISS

August 27, 2015

Five days after it launched from the Tanegashima Space Center on board the HTV-5 Transport Module, operated by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA), the CALorimetric Electron Telescope (CALET) docked at the International ...

Slam dunk for Andreas in space controlling rover on ground

September 9, 2015

Putting a round peg in a round hole is not hard for someone standing next to it. But yesterday ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen did this while orbiting 400 km up aboard the International Space Station, remotely operating a ...

Recommended for you

The ethics of robot love

November 25, 2015

There was to have been a conference in Malaysia last week called Love and Sex with Robots but it was cancelled. Malaysian police branded it "illegal" and "ridiculous". "There is nothing scientific about sex with robots," ...


Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.