An ultra-fast bionic arm - that can catch all sorts of objects thrown in its direction - could potentially grasp space debris, a growing problem recently brought to the attention of the US House of Representatives.

This unique technology, programmed at the Learning Algorithms and Systems Laboratory at EPFL (LASA), was designed to test robotic solutions for capturing moving objects.

"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," Aude Billard, head of LASA, said in a news release. 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."

The arm is 1.5 meters long and has three joints and a sophisticated hand with four fingers. While in an upright position, it can catch objects with complex shapes and trajectories, such as a tennis racket, hammer, ball or bottle, in less than five-hundredths of a second.

But the challenge was to create a device that could adapt for unforeseen changes.

"Today's machines are often pre-programmed and cannot quickly assimilate data changes," Billard added. "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."

To teach the robot how to adapt and react quicker, LASA researchers applied a programming by demonstration method. They manually guided the arm and repeated various exercises several times so that the arm could learn by imitation.

The aforementioned objects were specifically chosen in this experiment because they offer a range of complex movements that the robot has to react to. For example, the tennis racket has a handle, which doesn't correspond to its center of gravity.

This robotic arm has already been associated to the Clean- mE project carried out by the Swiss Space Center at EPFL, which aims to develop technologies for the recovery and disposal of space debris orbiting around Earth.