Table tennis playing robots debut in China

October 11th, 2011 - 11:05 am ICT by IANS  

Beijing, Oct 11 (IANS) Chinese experts have developed two humanoid robots that can play table tennis. Wu and Kong are programmed to serve, return and score.

The robots, each 1.6 meters tall and 55 kg of weight, made their debut Sunday at Zhejiang University in eastern China.
They played tennis with each other and with human players.

Decked out in old-fashioned Chinese jackets, they have arms, legs, eyes, ears and hair, just like humans.

The robots track table tennis balls using eye-mounted cameras, predicting the movement of the balls and responding accordingly, China’s state-owned Xinhua news agency reported.

Human players rely on experience and intuition to track the balls and return them to their opponents. The robots, on the other hand, use a complicated system, according to Xiong Rong, chief designer at the university’s robot lab.

The cameras capture 120 images per second, transmitting the images to the robots’ processors and allowing them to respond appropriately after calculating the ball’s position, speed, angle, landing position and path, said Xiong.

It takes just 50 to 100 milliseconds for the robots to respond, he added. Their ability to predict the ball’s landing position is quite accurate, with a margin of error of just 2.5 cm, Xiong said.

“We tried to develop a robot that is capable of accurate control and instant, continuous response,” he said.

The robots derive their names from Sun Wukong or “Monkey King”, a central character in the epic Chinese novel “Journey to the West”. Sun Wukong is a symbol of agility and intelligence In the novel.

“Table tennis creates higher requirements for the robots in terms of reaction time, visual processing, identification and calculation,” Xiong said.

Humanoid robots have become a global trend in robot design and development, with countries such as Japan, the US and France working to create robots that resemble humans. Japanese scientists have already designed “waiter robots” that can serve food and drinks, and interactive robots that can catch baseballs are under development, according to Xiong.

The university’s robot programme is part of the nation’s high-tech development plan, designed by the science and technology ministry to stimulate the development of advanced technology in a wide range of fields such as biotechnology, information technology and automation.

Scientists at Zhejiang University have spent four years on the development of Wu and Kong, who represent a third generation of robots that are more capable than their predecessors, Xiong said.

However, playing table tennis is not the ultimate goal of the project. Instead, it is simply a way to demonstrate the possibilities of robotic technology, he added.

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