As part of an outreach program and the Phillies' Science Day At The Ballpark, the University of Pennsylvania's School of Engineering and Applied Science is showcasing a robot made from a Segway and featuring an arm that acts more like a human throwing than an ordinary pitching machine.
A pitching machine functions more like a gun, firing a baseball in what amounts to a straight line. But the robot has an armature connected to a hand that was specifically designed for throwing, and it can put wrist action on the ball. Another thing the robot can do is identify the strike zone.
Deputy Dean of Education at SEAS, Vijay Kumar, who led the project, says he can envision a time when such robots will be able to read signals from the catcher as well. Here you can throw to whatever corner, or across and in.
The only real limits on the robot's ability to throw were the fact that the Phillies wanted to make sure that nobody got hurt, as a baseball can reach speeds of 100 miles per hour when thrown by a pitcher like the Cincinnati Reds' Aroldis Chapman. (The Phillies' Halladay often throws a slow pitch like a curve ball in the 80s).
At the same time, most robots are designed in such a way that they don't damage themselves, so the thrown ball would not have made it to the plate in the original designs. Kumar and his students had to design the machine to throw in the 40 mile per hour range, since the ball only has to go 60 feet, six inches and not injure the Philly Phanatic.
The robot isn't just a project to study pitching. It's part of the General robotics, Automation, Sensing and Perception laboratory, where students and researchers look at exactly how humans do things like grasp objects, identify them, throw, and a host of other activities that are simple enough for people but challenging for robots.