May 12 - A robot developed by researchers in Switzerland has been 'taught' how to grasp a variety of objects in mid-air with lightning speed. Its developers say the research could be used to develop a grappling device to pluck space debris out of orbit. Jim Drury went to see it in action.
UPSOT: ARM CATCHING RACKET The KUKA robot arm can pluck objects from the sky in the blink of an eye. According to its developers at Swiss Institute of Technology, EPFL, the arm takes just five hundredths of a second to react. UPSOT: ARM CATCHING BOTTLE Lead researcher professor Aude Billard says the arm is unique.... SOUNDBITE (English) PROFESSOR AUDE BILLARD SAYING: "This capacity to predict accurately very complex trajectory of what we call the grasping point, which is non linear, that is the major scientific advance. And similarly to be able to control in synchrony the arm of the robot and also the fingers is another major advance." Originally designed for use in factories, the arm has seven joints and a hand with four fingers. Researcher Seungsu Kim says it has been programmed to operate in three phases. SOUNDBITE (English) SEUNGSU KIM, RESEARCHER, EPFL, SAYING: "First thing is to predict the whole trajectory. Second thing is finding best catching posture. And third thing is generating arm motion." But it took a great deal of technical research to train the arm. Rackets, hammers, balls, and bottles covered with sensors were thrown at the KUKA while motion capture recordings helped create models of their movement through the air. Ashwini Shukla says the team translated the data into equations that the arm uses as instructions to position itself in milliseconds. SOUNDBITE (English) ASHWINI SHUKLA, EPFL RESEARCHER, SAYING: "We gather the data, we learn models, which help the robot 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." UPSOT: SHAKING WATER It even copes with objects that have constantly changing centres of gravity. UPSOT: ARM CATCHING BOTTLE The EU-funded research was developed in conjunction with EPFL's Swiss Space Center. One objective is to create a similar limb that can recover and dispose of space debris orbiting around Earth. SOUNDBITE (English) PROFESSOR AUDE BILLARD SAYING: "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 make inference as to what will be the next translation of velocity, so where this debris will be moving next and adapt its orientation to put the position of its arm so it can grab it and bring it back down to Earth." It's one of many ambitious goals...but no matter how it's deployed, the scientists says their robot arm is bound to come in handy. UPSOT: RESEARCHER SAYS 'Nice!'