A new four-fingered, three-jointed robotic hand developed by the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL or Swiss Federal institute of Technology in Lausanne) can catch flying objects in in less than five-hundredths of a second, and represents a breakthrough in robotic technology.
In the video released this week by EPFL News the new robot was able to catch balls, bottles and tennis rackets thrown in its direction, drawing on human learning-like calculations as opposed to conventional pre-programmed functions.
“Increasingly present in our daily lives and used to perform various tasks, robots will be able to either catch or dodge complex objects in full motion,” EPFL development team head Aude Billard said in a statement.
The team used a technique called “programming by demonstration” to teach the robot to catch by not giving it any specific instructions, and instead manually guided the hand to a catching position multiple times until it learned to do so autonomously.
Researchers threw several different objects with varying centers of gravity at the robot, which measured their speed, trajectory and rotation with multiple cameras positioned around it to digitally model its movement. After that it began to make fast calculations necessary to move and correct its own trajectory in real time, and synchronize its fingers to catch thrown objects.
Similar to the way the human brain learns by imitation, trial and error, the new technique represents a significant step away from traditional pre-programmed robotic functions — the calculations for which take too long for a robot to react in quickly changing scenarios. Instead, the robot integrates multiple pieces of information in very little time and reacts to unpredictable events.
The team reports the tech could be used on cars to break impacts before an accidents, and has already been incorporated into developing space arms that could be deployed on spacecraft or satellites to deflect space junk.