How Prosthetic Drummer, Jason Barnes makes his own kind of Music with New Robotic Arm


Jason Barnes – The ‘Bionic Drummer’

We’ve heard various anecdotes about Technology joining forces with the power of Biology and coming up with many materials to aid our duties.

Well, the story I am about to present to you today is not from the usual Biomaterial category. This story is about a young man, who although lost the ability to achieve his passion physically never backed down on his dreams.

Jason Barnes, quite like his father, was determined to be a musician. Ever since he was a child, he had one true goal in life; to become a drummer.

Lost the lower part his right arm

Unfortunately, at the age of 22, Jason lost his right hand in a terrible accident, which could have even proved fatal.

That should have been the very end of Jason’s career and dreams. But, with more than enough willpower and dedication, Jason didn’t lose hope!

With his creative mind, he taped a drumstick to the bandage of his stump and tried drumming again. Eventually, the entire process seemed a little too unreasonable for professional drumming.

Normal arm prosthetics weren’t specifically built for musical purposes, such as keeping up with the rhythm in drumming. Jason, after a few months of toil, did start drumming with what’s called a Body-Powered Prosthetic.

Regrettably, there were two problems with the prosthetic; he had to use a lot of his shoulder to get the right hits and it was limited how fast he could play. Thusly, to overcome these obstacles, Jason decided to build a robotic prosthetic arm himself!

Since 2013, Jason had been working with Gil Weinberg, a professor and founding director of the Georgia Tech for Music Technology to create what is now known as a ‘Cyborg Arm’ using Artificial Intelligence and Biology.

Gil Weinberg (left) and Jason Barnes working out the arm.

It was his music instructor at Atlanta Institute of Music, Eric Sanders, who had recommended Gil Weinberg to Jason.

As Jason explained his requirements, Gil knew exactly what was needed- a robotic arm that could understand the human cues, sense more of the muscles and control the hits on the drums.

“They listen like a human, understand the rhythm, but when they improvise, they use genetic algorithms to create music.”, says Gil in an interview following the success of his robotic marvel.

Following the explanation and picturising exactly what Jason wanted, they created a team of researchers to work on the project.

As they held out studies and experiments, they realised there were a lot of complex steps they had to take care of.

Probably, their main concern was latency; the delay that took place between Jason’s hit and the prosthetic recognizing the hit and its statistics. Additionally, the amount of pressure required to play different styles of beats also mattered.

Therefore, the team decided to use something known as EMG, Electromyography, a neurophysiological technique that acts upon the activity of muscles.

This technique is based on the simple fact that whenever an impulse moves a muscle, an electric signal is generated which travels through tissues and bones and can be identified and recorded from the closest skin areas.

This idea of electric signal sensing is what helped the team achieve what they needed. By clenching his bicep muscles, Jason can control a small motor that changes the amount of strength required to grip the drumstick and also the pace of the movement.

Using the signals generated in Jason’s residual limb, the team was able to spot complex patterns using machine learning and use those patterns to create movements.

Tensorflow, an open-source AI platform powered by Google, was used extensively for this purpose of identifying patterns.

The Rocking Power of Biomaterials

And so, the researchers at Georgia Tech developed the ‘Smart Arm’, which can be attached to the drummer’s shoulder.

It collects signals from the drummer’s muscles, the robotic arm reacts and replicates the impulse.

Taking their success as an inspiration for improvement, the team also added a second drumstick on the robotic arm.

Rocking Power of Biomaterials

It is controlled by its rotor. This second autonomous stick “listens” to what Jason’s other hand plays, including the beats and tunes of the other musicians, and improvises accordingly.

This became possible due to the attached microphone that detects each rhythm. The Blue Microphones Australia is so advanced that you can use it to detect even the pace of your heartbeat.

Weinberg further says that such robotic synchronisation technology could be used in the future to create multiple limbs for fully or partially abled humans for efficiency and speed.

Hereafter, Jason Barnes is called the “Cyborg Drummer” or “Superhuman Drummer” due to the aid of AI and Biotechnology.

By Raima Joseph
(UG in BTech, Christ University, Bangalore)

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