At this point, we’re pretty used to reading articles and watching videos about robots who can perform a host of tasks more efficiently than humans. The number and range of such tasks continues to grow exponentially, leaving me wondering if we’re really only better at writing articles about the ways robots are superior. Just kidding — they could do that better too. Here’s another skill robots have mastered: the ability to react quickly enough to catch objects thrown at them, even if those objects are thrown at the speed of an MLB pitch.
If you’ve ever watched Asimo fall down the stairs, or watched how slowly the robots competing in the DARPA Robotics Challenge complete their tasks, you know robots aren’t usually particularly nimble (but don’t worry—DARPA’s on it.) But researchers at Switzerland’s Learning Algorithms and System Laboratory (LASA) created a robotic arm that is as good at catching objects as this robot is at winning rock, paper, scissors.
This robot was created by combining parts from a lightweight KUKA robotic arm and an Allegro Hand, which has four fingers which function more like three fingers and a thumb. The KUKA arm is trainable — the researchers essentially taught it how to catch objects, thus programming it by demonstration. This allowed the arm and hand to build a repertoire of objects that might be thrown at it, and apply what it learned from the demonstrations to the act of catching those objects.
LASA professor Aude Billard said, “Training requires about 20 examples for each type of object,” which sounds like about as much practice as a coordinated person would need to learn how to catch most of these objects. Developing the algorithm and writing the code for the arm was more difficult, and took nearly three years. But looking at the videos, the effort was clearly worth it. As long as there’s a high-speed camera to help it process what’s coming at it, the robotic hand and arm never miss or drop an object.
The researchers say the hand and arm can move quickly enough to catch a major league fastball, which is actually easier than catching other objects that require the hand to maintain a specific orientation, such as it would need to catch a tennis racket. The idea is to construct a robot suitable for changing and dynamic environments, and which can react with lightning speed to accidents or other events. The team is now working on implementing this technology in a trash collecting robot — in space.