Helping hand: The robot that can catch you when you’re falling

The old saying goes that you can’t teach an old robot new tricks, but this one is certainly bucking the trend by being taught how to catch items – and one day it might even be able to catch people who are in danger.

The robotic arm is already at a disadvantage to other robots as it only has four fingers, however this hasn’t stopped it from learning how to pluck five different objects out of the air when they’re flung in its direction.

Scientists at the Learning Algorithms and Systems Laboratory at EPFL, Switzerland, said the technology could be adapted so it is able to save lives in dangerous situations.

Aude Billard, who is the head of the lab, said: “This controller can be used for many other different applications typically catching people who are in danger of falling, catching objects that may fall onto people.

“That also applies to any controller for a vehicle robot, here you’re seeing in arm robots but it could also be in a car. A car needs to be able to react very rapidly to oncoming traffic.”

The robot has a little way to go before it is saving lives, however, but it has so far been able to catch a ball, an empty bottle, a half-full bottle, a hammer and a tennis racket.

The scientists who taught the robot everything it knows treated the robot like it was a human – by using trial and error as a learning tool.

They do not give the robot directions but show the robot examples of possible trajectories that items may come in at, which involves manually guiding the arm to the projected target and repeating this exercise several times.

In the first instance objects were thrown several times in the robot’s direction and through a series of cameras located around it the robot creates a model for the objects’ kinetics based on their movement.

The scientists then step in and translate it into an equation which then allows the robot to position itself very quickly in the right direction.

In the milliseconds from the object leaving the researcher’s hand the robot refines and corrects the trajectory so it is able to capture the object.

Aude Billard, who worked on the project, said that future robots will need to be able to react in real-time.

Aude said: “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.”

“Not only do we need machines able to react on the spot, but also to predict the moving object’s dynamics and generate a movement in the opposite direction.”

In total the arm is about 1.5m long and keeps an upright position and it has three joints and a hand with four fingers.

Images courtesy of Learning Algorithms and Systems Laboratory

Power of the Swarm: Researchers Unlock the Key to a Nanoscale Robot Army

Researchers have developed a method of making thousands of tiny robots ‘cluster’ to work together on a task without using any memory or processing power, paving the way for large numbers of cheap robots to be used on tasks.

This represents a significant breakthrough as previously all robotic ‘swarms’ needed complex programming, making the process of miniaturising individual robots very difficult and time consuming.

The researchers, who are based at the University of Sheffield, believe the nanoscale robots envisioned by futurists for medicine and engineering could now be possible.

“In a real world scenario, this could involve monitoring the levels of pollution in the environment; we could also see them being used to perform tasks in areas where it would be hazardous for humans to go,” explained Dr Roderich Gross, senior lecturer in robotics and computational intelligence at Sheffield Centre for Robotics.

“Because they are so simple, we could also imagine these robots being used at the micron-scale, for example in healthcare technologies, where they could travel through the human vascular network to offer diagnosis or treatment in a non-invasive way.”

The breakthrough could be of significant benefit to the agricultural industry, where the use of tiny robots to monitor crops has already been proposed.

The researchers programmed 40 robots to cluster successfully, and performed computer simulations to demonstrate the technique’s ability to scale to thousands.

Each of the robots has only one sensor, which allows it to identify whether there is a robot in front it. If it can’t it then rotates on the spot or moves around in a circle until it can identify another robot.

By doing this, the robots can slowly form and maintain a cluster formulation

“What we have shown is that robots do not need to compute to solve problems like that of gathering into a single cluster, and the same could be true for swarming behaviours that we find in nature, such as in bacteria, fish, or mammals,” explained Gross.

“This means we are able to ‘scale up’ these swarms, to use thousands of robots that could then be programmed to perform tasks.”


The team is now looking at how to program the robots to perform basic tasks such as moving objects or sorting them into groups.

Because the approach is so simple, the robots could be very cheap to build, making it possible to use them in large numbers for everyday tasks.

Once the research has developed sufficiently, tiny robots could become part of our everyday life.