Engineers from MIT and Prince- ton University have developed a robotic system that may one day
lend a hand in unpacking groceries and
other picking and sorting tasks, from
organizing products in a warehouse to
clearing debris from a disaster zone.
The team’s design is based on two
The researchers engineered a stan-
general operations: picking (the act of
successfully grasping an object) and per-
ceiving (the ability to recognize and clas-
sify an object, once grasped).
dard industrial robotic arm outfitted
with a custom gripper and suction cup.
They then trained the robotic arm to
pick novel objects from a cluttered bin,
using any one of four main grasping
behaviors: suctioning onto an object,
either vertically or from the side; grip-
ping the object vertically like a claw; or,
for objects that lie flush against a wall,
gripping vertically and then using a flex-
ible spatula to slide between the object
and the wall.
The team showed the robot images
of bins cluttered with objects, captured
from the robot’s vantage point. They
then showed the robot which objects
were graspable—with which of the four
main grasping behaviors—and which
were not, marking each example as a
success or failure. They did this for hundreds of examples, and over time, the
researchers built up a library of picking successes and failures. They incorporated this library into a deep neural
network—a multilayered algorithm that
enables the robot to match the current
problem it faces with a successful outcome from the past.
The researchers also developed a
perception system, enabling the robot
to classify an object once it’s been successfully grasped. They assembled a
library of product images, taken from
online sources such as retailer websites,
and labeled each image with the correct
identification—for instance, duct tape
versus masking tape. Then they developed another learning algorithm to relate
the pixels in a given image to the correct
label for a given object.
At the Amazon Robotics Challenge in
Japan last July, the team’s two-ton robot
faced off against 15 other bots in a competition to pick and stow objects from a
cluttered bin. The robot stowed all 20
objects in the allotted time, earning first
place in the stowing category.
“This [system] can be applied to warehouse sorting but also may be used to pick
things from your kitchen cabinet or clear
debris after an accident. There are many
situations where picking technologies
could have an impact,” says mechanical
engineering professor Alberto Rodriguez.
He and his colleagues at MIT and Princeton will present a paper detailing their
system at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in May.
77 Mass Ave
Robotic sorting gets a grip
Robots learn to pick up items and classify them.
Elliott Donlon (left) and
Francois Hogan observe
the robotic sorting arm.