Bowling Robot Is No Turkey

United States Bowling Congress Uses Machine to Eliminate Human Error in Ball Study

By Mike Bacidore, managing editor

Harry is a member of the United States Bowling Congress ( Specifications and Certification team. Standing almost 7 ft in height, Harry can throw bowling balls with more precision and accuracy than any other member of the team and can duplicate shot after shot at ball speeds ranging from 14 to 22 mph and revolution rates as high as 600 rpm.

Harry, named in honor of former USBC testing facility employee Harry Lawrence, is a robotic bowling ball thrower who is part of the equipment testing and research effort at the USBC test facility in Greendale, Wis., and a key contributor in USBC’s two-year study of bowling ball motion and how advanced, high-tech equipment may influence lane conditions and scoring in the sport.

Foul - Line Safety

Harry, USBC’s robotic bowling machine used for studies, rolls a perfect ball every time, with no foul-line violations.
Photo by USBC

“We wanted to take the human error out of evaluating balls as they roll down the lane,” says Nick Siefers, senior research engineer at USBC. “It’s built to be an automatic precision ball thrower. We licensed out the design and building.”

That was done by NJ Tech (, primarily a machining company at its facility in Gilberts, Ill. “It’s pretty amazing what the human body can do,” says Doug Jacobs, vice president of technology at NJ Tech. “Duplicating it isn’t easy.”

Developed and in use since 1999, Harry is a unique machine that includes an Omron PLC and a Yaskawa drive. Partly encased in safety glass, Harry combines hydraulics, air pressure and electronics to power a mechanical arm that delivers bowling balls to help test balls, lanes, pins and oil patterns.

Three lasers are positioned in each ball’s finger holes and weight hole to act as load guides.

Like most bowlers, Harry has two hands—a device with two clamps that grabs bowling balls. A piston and cylinder assembly opens and closes the hands to pick up and release balls. Springs and gravity provide forward momentum to propel balls down the lane.

“The hands that grab the ball are pneumatically actuated,” says Jacobs. “We used an extension spring. A cable comes down and pulls back the arm. There’s an encoder on the shaft of the arm so it tells the angle position of the arm. When it goes past center, then the air cylinders release it to throw it. As the arm releases, the sensor can read the angle so Harry knows when to let go of the ball.”

An interface allows the test team to set speed, rotation, release point or loft, axis tilt and axis rotation, explains Paul Ridenour, research engineer at USBC. “Some of these are mechanical sets. Not every bowler is the same,” he says.

“To be able to emulate any type of bowler, we have to be able to make adjustments on Harry,” says Siefers. “We can change a variety of characteristics, so we’ve incorporated a wide range of styles in the machine itself.”

For the motion study it recently completed, USBC conducted more than 150 tests of 59 particle and reactive resin balls on eight different lanes in its climate-controlled testing center. Harry was paired with SuperCATS—a computer and sensor system comprised of 23 small electronic sensors installed on the lanes that precisely tracks bowling ball location and speed as it travels down a lane, allowing USBC to record and measure ball motion data.

“SuperCATS tracks position, velocity and angle,” says Ridenour. “We collect the data in an Excel file. Then we take the file and conduct a patent-pending analysis of it.”

The collected information then is merged with the records of Harry’s control settings. “Right now it’s a manual approach to integrating the data between Harry and SuperCATS,” explains Siefers. Several hundred multiple linear regressions are conducted to analyze the data, which will be discussed with bowling ball manufacturers this month before the findings are released to the public.

As bowling's national governing body, USBC undertook this research project, working cooperatively with ball manufacturers. One impetus for the study is that, over the past 20 years, bowling's credibility has been compromised by technological advancements that have affected scoring.

"USBC is concerned that technology has overtaken player skill in determining success in the sport of bowling," says Neil Stremmel, USBC technical director. "The ultimate goal of USBC research is to strike a better balance between player skill and technology." The testing process officially started in summer 2006 after the formation of the USBC Bowling Ball Specifications Task Force. That group has framed the research project, deciding which bowling ball layouts and lane oil patterns to use.

Click here to watch USBC's Robotic Bowling Ball Thrower, a video showing Harry's capabilities.
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