A robotic arm capable of catching objects in mid-air has been developed by researchers in Switzerland. It may have far-reaching consequences on the ground, as well as in space. 

The device is about four feet in length, and the arm is equipped with seven joints. Using a highly flexible hand, the arm is capable of catching objects thrown in its direction. This hand has four fingers, with three joints each. 

Objects the arm can catch include not only balls, but also other items, such as tennis rackets, hammers, bottles and more. Cameras record the trajectory of objects thrown toward the arm, allowing the processor to calculate how to catch the item. Capturing unusually-shaped objects like these is more challenging than catching balls.

"This requires the solution of three complex problems: predicting accurately the trajectory of fast-moving objects, predicting the feasible catching configuration and planning the arm motion, and all within milliseconds. We follow a programming-by-demonstration approach in order to learn, from throwing examples, models of the object dynamics and arm movement," Aude Billard and Ashwini Shukla of the Learning Algorithms and Systems Laboratory (LASA) wrote in the article announcing their development. 

Artificial arms capable of catching objects have been created before. However, this new model is able to learn from experience, as well as human instructions, unlike previous designs. 

"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 a situation in which every fraction of a second can be decisive," researchers wrote in a statement.

Such devices may one day be able to protect people from falling objects, or from taking tumbles. Construction sites can be hazardous places for workers, especially on high-rise buildings. As per Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), construction workers accounted for 19.3 percent of all workplace fatalities in 2012. That year, 279 people fell to their deaths while working on construction sites. Another 79 were struck by objects, often falling from above the victim. A robotic arm capable of catching and slowing the fall of items of people could save lives.

Robotic arms installed in cars could reach out, and slow down, or avoid an impact. In space, devices based on this technology could collect junk, clearing orbits for future missions. Some of these materials could also be recovered for re-use by mission planners on future expeditions to space. Arms like these could, one day, be fitted to satellites designed to gather space debris.

Video of the robotic arm in action is available on the LASA YouTube page.

Development of the high-tech robotic arm was profiled in the journal IEEE Transactions on Robots.

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