prehensileA Prehensile Tail?!

(Telluride Neuromorphic Workshop, July 2004)

Ever thought that a prehensile tail would be useful?  The potential applications span from enhanced physical agility to social expression to a simple “helping hand”.  A longtime dream of mine has been to construct a robotic tail controlled by signals from electromyography (EMG) using skin-surface electrodes.  EMG-based control of prosthetic limbs has a long history and is being developed for future teleoperated robotic actuators for use in space and other hazardous environments.  Because EMG measures muscle activation, the signal represents the force that the muscle is exerting on the body and the environment.

At this summer’s Telluride Neuromorphic Engineering Workshop, a team of enthusiastic participants decided to attempt a proof-of-concept project, demonstrating a simple two-channel (four-state) tail control.  Our project consisted of three components:  EMG signal detection, signal processing/command recognition, and the motorized tail.  Our team consisted of: Pamela Abshire (Univ. Maryland), Chris Assad (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), Rodrigo Alvarez (Univ. Pennsylvania), Lena Ting (Georgia Tech), Nima Mesgarani (Univ. Maryland), and Massimiliano Giulioni (Italian Institute of Health)

EMG signals measured on the skin surface over an active muscle can be as large as a few millivolts in amplitude, with frequencies mainly between 20-400 Hz. They are typically measured with two skin electrodes placed along the length of the muscle and a high input-impedance differential amplifier.  A low-impedance ground electrode is placed on the body surface away from the muscle to control the common-mode voltage for the amplifier.  Most clinical (commercial) systems use standardized wet electrodes (Ag/AgCl), each with an adhesive patch to hold the electrode and conductive gel securely against the skin surface.  While we successfully designed and tested our own amplifiers, we ultimately used two commercial amplifiers that had better noise characteristics and could be connected directly onto the electrode patches.   Figure 1 shows example signal data from a forearm muscle being rapidly twitched.  A gain of about 1000 was used here.  In our final version, two sets of electrodes were placed vertically over the lower back muscles (Erector spinae muscle group) about 1.5 inches from the spine.


Following analog amplification, we sampled the waveform using a multi-channel Measurement Computing™ Universal Serial Bus (USB) Analog to Digital converter (ADC) at 500 samples/sec in 100ms blocks.  This USB device included digital outputs as well.  A laptop computer running MATLAB was used to control data acquisition and provide software control.  The waveforms were subsequently rectified and lowpass filtered and compared against a level threshold.  We now had two digital channels that indicated when the left, right, or both back muscles were contracting.

To test the feasibility of controlling a robotic device using the EMG signals, we built a prototype robotic tail. The core of the tail consisted of a light flexible steel cable that was easily bent yet resisted compression. The steel cable was fitted with eight circular flanges through which three parallel strings (Spectra Cable 0.030in) were threaded through holes on the edges.  Applying tension to one string effectively bends the assembly as the effective length of this string reduces while the length of the steel cable remains constant forming an arc.  The three tensional strings were separated by 120 degrees along the circumference of the guide to control the two degrees of freedom on the tail.  Tension was applied to each string using the shaft of a Solarbotics™ motor as a winch mechanism. The motors and the steel cable are both mounted to a base plate which serves as the base of the tail. The default gear ratio was reduced by removing a gear-stage to facilitate passive back-driving of the motor.

The three motors were driven by one of three possible EMG commands:  a left muscle contraction drove the left motor to pull, a right muscle contraction drove the right motor to pull, and co-contraction of the back muscles drove the third (downward) motor to pull.  The three motors are connected in a “star” configuration with a common node in the center.  When one motor is driven in the pulling direction, the current flows through the motor towards the center of the star and flows outward through the two other motors in the releasing direction.   The pulling motor bends the tail and the other motors weakly release their strings.  This system, while clever, suffered from both weak motor strength and frictional imbalances producing either too much tension or looseness.


The final system (see Figure 3) was “portable”, consisting of a laptop, USB-based ADC, batteries, and a tangle of wires.  The tail mechanism was mounted on a commercial lower-back support product.  The tail would wag naturally while walking, due to the alternating muscle activations with each step.  Leaning forward or deliberate stomach-muscle contractions produced back muscle co-contractions that pulled the tail straight down.  The lack of proprioceptive or visual feedback made tail control somewhat confusing.

This project initiated many new ideas about the use of many more electrodes and utilizing signal separation techniques to resolve the signals of muscle subsets that are currently blurred together on a single set of electrodes.  The signal-to-noise ratio of the back muscle measurements were quite high which allowed a close look at the complex muscle activations that underlie balance and posture in humans.

Movie:  Testing the tail with Masi's arm (5.0 MB AVI file)
Movie:  Testing on the bench (2.6MB AVI file)
Movie:  Testing on Timmer's back (3.6 MB AVI file)
Movie:  Going for a walk in the Workshop lab (8.9 MB AVI file)

Another interesting EMG-driven tail project can be found at: