Robotic System Plots Space Then Moves Arm Safely Through It

Obstacles no obstacle

Robotic Arm Moving Through Space

Robotic Arm Moving Through Space

Carefully grabbing objects without knocking other stuff over.Screenshot by author, from YouTube

Moving through space is complicated. Sure, it doesn’t seem like much planning to reach over the precarious stack of magazines, around the half-filled glass of water, and around the record player to grab the misplaced rubik’s cube, but that’s because humans have lifetimes of experience in moving through space. Robots don’t. To make a robot that could plan these types of intricate movements, researchers at Duke did the logical thing: They taught it to survey the entire space, subdivide that space into little rectangular prisms of area, and then check that against where it needed to move. Simple, right?

Here’s the robotic arm grabbing a cube while avoiding obstacles.

And here is the motion plotted, then the entire space mapped, then the motion plotted shown in blocks of space:

The robotic arm is part of a broader system, with four Microsoft Kinect scanners serving as eyepieces mounted above the table. It’s these scanners that plot the space, and then the arms move through it, building a roadmap from a set of possible positions. While its plotting how it has to move, it’s also checking to make sure that it won’t collide with anything.

"When you think about a car assembly line, the entire environment is carefully controlled so that the robots can blindly repeat the same movements over and over again," said George Konidaris, assistant professor of computer science and electrical and computer engineering at Duke. "The car parts are in exactly the same place every time, and the robots are contained within cages so that humans don't wander past. But if your robot is using motion planning in real time and a part is in a different place, or there's some unexpected clutter, or a human walks by, it'll do the right thing."

Watch it in action below: