Superfast robot arm catches anything thrown at it

Swiss researchers have developed a superfast and super-accurate robotic arm that could eventually save lives.

At Learning Algorithms and System Laboratory (LASA) in Switzerland’s EPFL, researchers have worked hard to create an astonishing piece of robotic equipment. By combining the parts of two robots, they have created a large robotic arm that is capable of catching nearly anything that is thrown at it. From tennis rackets to water bottles, the four-fingered hand moves with incredible speed and accuracy to intercept objects thrown at it.

"I think the main novelty we bring to object-catching is the way we transfer information from a human to the robot," said LASA researcher Ashwini Shukla.

One of the components from was a robot arm from a German company called KUKA, which was then combined with a piece of equipment called an Allegro Hand from SimLab. Part of what makes the lightweight KUKA component so useful is its ability to be trained through movement. The researchers went through the motions of physically guiding the arm and hand through the motions of catching objects. Cameras tracked the movement which allowed the robot to ‘memorise’ the appropriate response to catch, which was then applied to new and unguided ballistics.

"Training requires about 20 examples for each type of object," LASA professor Aude Billard told a source. "Writing the code — or rather, developing the algorithm — is the result of two to three years of work of the two main researchers, Dr. Seung Su Kim and Ashwini Shukla."

The code, along with the physical part of the robot, has resulted in a multi-jointed arm that appears infallible at catching whatever is thrown at it. While it’s a fun party trick, the researchers at LASA are working towards the goal of a robot that can adjust to any environment or change of situation within a fraction of a second.

In real world applications this could translate as a robot catching someone before they fall, or preventing an unexpected object from landing on someone in a building site. It could even be used to help avoid collisions, since the robotic reaction time would naturally be faster and more accurate than a human’s. The next iteration of this technology will eventually end up in space, where a robotic guardian will catch space debris for the Swiss Space Centre.

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