The robot that can catch

Art-bot artists such as Bill Vorn or Morgan Rauscher can maybe take into account for their next works the new robot arm developed by Lausanne-based Learning Algorithms and Systems Laboratory (LASA) at EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne).

The 1.5m long robotic arm is effectively capable of reacting on the spot and grasping objects with complex shapes and trajectories in less than five hundredths of a second! The experiences made with a ball, an empty bottle, a half full bottle, a hammer and a tennis racket – objects offering a varied range of situations - is actually very close to a genuine learning programme, copying the way humans learn themselves, by imitation, trial and error.

Aude Billard, head of LASA, explains the way it works. "Today’s machines are often pre-programmed and cannot quickly assimilate data changes. Consequently, their only choice is to recalculate the trajectories, which requires too much time from them in situations in which every fraction of a second can be decisive."

On an opposite way, the technique used here was called Programming by Demonstration. Without giving specific directions to the robot, it shows instead examples of possible trajectories to it, through a series of cameras located all around the robot. The robot then creates a model for the objects’ kinetics based on their trajectories, speeds and rotational movement, a model that the machine refines and corrects by repeating the exercise several times.

Laurent Catala

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