Machine learning leverage sensors to give robots an effective sense of touch

Eight years ago, Ted Adelson’s research group at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) unveiled a new sensor technology, called GelSight, that uses physical contact with an object to provide a remarkably detailed 3-D map of its surface.

Now, by mounting GelSight sensors on the grippers of robotic arms, two MIT teams have given robots greater sensitivity and dexterity. The researchers presented their work in two papers at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation last week.

In one paper, Adelson’s group uses the data from the GelSight sensor to enable a robot to judge the hardness of surfaces it touches — a crucial ability if household robots are to handle everyday objects.

In the other, Russ Tedrake’s Robot Locomotion Group at CSAIL uses GelSight sensors to enable a robot to manipulate smaller objects than was previously possible.

A GelSight sensor attached to a robot’s gripper enables the robot to determine precisely where it has grasped a small screwdriver, removing it from and inserting it back into a slot, even when the gripper screens the screwdriver from the robot’s camera. Photo: Robot Locomotion Group at MIT

In Izatt’s experiments, a robot with a GelSight-equipped gripper had to grasp a small screwdriver, remove it from a holster, and return it. Of course, the data from the GelSight sensor don’t describe the whole screwdriver, just a small patch of it. But Izatt found that, as long as the vision system’s estimate of the screwdriver’s initial position was accurate to within a few centimeters, his algorithms could deduce which part of the screwdriver the GelSight sensor was touching and thus determine the screwdriver’s position in the robot’s hand.

“I think that the GelSight technology, as well as other high-bandwidth tactile sensors, will make a big impact in robotics,” says Sergey Levine, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California at Berkeley. “For humans, our sense of touch is one of the key enabling factors for our amazing manual dexterity. Current robots lack this type of dexterity and are limited in their ability to react to surface features when manipulating objects. If you imagine fumbling for a light switch in the dark, extracting an object from your pocket, or any of the other numerous things that you can do without even thinking — these all rely on touch sensing.”

“Software is finally catching up with the capabilities of our sensors,” Levine adds. “Machine learning algorithms inspired by innovations in deep learning and computer vision can process the rich sensory data from sensors such as the GelSight to deduce object properties. In the future, we will see these kinds of learning methods incorporated into end-to-end trained manipulation skills, which will make our robots more dexterous and capable, and maybe help us understand something about our own sense of touch and motor control.”

Tracking Objects with Point Cloudsfrom Vision and Touch


We present an object-tracking framework that fuses point cloud information from an RGB-D camera with tactile information from a GelSight contact sensor. GelSight can be treated as a source of dense local geometric information, which we incorporate directly into a conventional point-cloud-based articulated object tracker based on signed-distance functions. Our implementation runs at 12 Hz using an online depth reconstruction algorithm for GelSight and a modified secondorder update for the tracking algorithm. We present data from hardware experiments demonstrating that the addition of contact-based geometric information significantly improves the pose accuracy during contact, and provides robustness to occlusions of small objects by the robot’s end effector.

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