A Swiss design team has created a robot arm with reaction time nearly as fast as a human — which means this robot may be better at first base than your average rookie. In a video of the arm in action, the four-fingered robot sits motionless before a controller is activated. A split second later, it suddenly opens its “palm” and catches several flying objects thrown in its direction — a ball, a bottle and even a tennis racquet.

But while that’s cool, just wait until you hear how it learned its behavior.

This nearly 5-foot-long orange arm was created at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne — also known as EPFL — one of the two Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology. The experiment was designed to test robotic solutions for capturing fast-moving objects.

This particular robot is unique because, with its four fingers and three independent joints, it has the ability to catch “projectiles of various irregular shapes” nearly as fast as an athlete — in less than five-hundredths of a second, according to Science Daily.

“We teach the robot how to predict a moving object, after that we teach the robot where to grasp and how to move its arm,” said Seungsu Kim, a researcher with the Learning Algorithms and Systems Laboratory at EPFL.

The most ingenious part of the project is how the robot learns to catch; the engineers designed a program to allow the robot to watch and learn from the human attempts at tracking and grasping the moving objects.

“We call this programming by demonstration, we do not have to explicitly specify the task or the object’s motion,” LASA designer Ashwini Shukla said.

“The robot can just observe the task from a human and observe the object flying through the air a number of times to build a model of it and use this for catching in real time.”
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The goal of the project is to develop the robots in a way where they can interact with humans in a fast-paced, changing environment. The robot and controller can grasp objects with complex shapes and trajectories faster than the blink of an eye.

“Of course this controller can be used in many different applications, (such as) catching people who are falling, catching an object that may fall onto people,” LASA engineer Aude Billard said.

Check out the entire video here:

(H/T: Science Daily)

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