Robotic Arm Can Catch Objects in Fractions of a Second

Innovation May 30, 2014

It looks like a simple mechanical arm that you might find stationed in a factory or warehouse anywhere in the world, ready to move items from one area to another. However chuck something at that arm and you’ll see what it leap into action and do what it was designed to do: catch objects with cat-like reflexes.

The arm is about 1.5 metres long and the robotic hand attached to it is about the same size as an adult human hand, with 4 digits equivalent to a thumb and three fingers. It was designed by a team at Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland, not as a means to replace infielders during batting practice, but to test a new kind of learning process on it.

Rather than catching the object by using a series of calculations to estimate the trajectory and speed of the thrown object, as you might suspect a robotic arm would do, the arm was “taught” to catch objects through learning and doing it; very much akin to a dad playing catch with his son. The researchers helped manipulate the robotic arm to catch the objects, through which the arm learned the necessary movements.

Nor were the objects all the same size or shape. Researchers hurled a variety of different objects at the arm, including a tennis racket, a hammer, empty and partially filled bottles, and of course, a ball, and the arm could catch each one without difficulty, despite their difference characteristics in the air.

Given the deftness and coordination it takes to catch a thrown object, the arm needed to have fast reflexes to launch it into motion the moment it had decided how it should move to catch the object, and it has those reflexes in bunches. The arm could make adjustments in as little as one-fifth of a second, which is comparable with human reaction times.

While the researchers have no specific aim or goal for the arm at present, they believe the research could be integrated into future robots, giving them the capability to protect humans from falling or thrown objects by using their skillful ability to catch objects, and blazing fast speed. At the very least, it should come in extremely handy for when robots start playing baseball; which should be the ultimate goal of all roboticists.

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