Swiss researchers have successfully managed to develop a robot that can grasp objects thrown at it.
The 1.5 metre-long robotic arm has seven joints and a sophisticated hand with four fingers.
Cameras allow it to see what is coming its way. Based on the information, the arm’s computer produces a mathematical model to represent the object’s course. The robot then changes position extremely quickly in order to grasp the object thrown in its direction, like a tennis racket, a ball or a water bottle.
“We teach the robot how to reach towards an object, from many different directions, and at the same time we also teach it the co-ordination it needs to have between the arm and the fingers to be able to successfully catch the object,” said Ashwini Shukla, a researcher at the EPFL (École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, Switzerland).
“We gather this data… which help the robot to predict the optimal motion which will be successful in catching this object, for reaching towards it and also closing the fingers around at the correct time,” he added.
Researchers hope their robotic arm may someday be used to grab and retrieve fast-moving space debris, whose increasing abundance threatens other objects, including the International Space Station.
“Assume now that the robot is mounted on a satellite and it’s tracking the debris and as it’s observing this junk rotating then it can make an inference as to what will be the next translation on rotation and velocity, so where this debris will be moving next, and it can adapt its orientation to put the position of its arm so it can grab it and bring it back down to Earth,” explained Professor Aude Billard of EPFL.
The researchers were inspired by the way humans learn by imitation and trial and error. The technique involved showing the robot examples of possible trajectories and then repeatedly guiding its arm manually to the projected target.