MIT scientists have developed a new picking robot which combines artificial vision with radio frequency (RF) sensing to find and grasp objects even if they’re hidden from view.
Called RF-Grasp, the robot possesses almost superhuman-like perception and could one day streamline e-commerce fulfillment in warehouses or help a machine pluck a screwdriver from a jumbled toolkit, notes MIT Associate Professor Fadel Adib.
Warehouse work is still more of a human domain than a robotic one. This is because robots struggle to locate and grasp objects in such a crowded environment.
“Perception and picking are two roadblocks in the industry today,” notes associate professor Alberto Rodriguez.
Using optical vision alone, robots can’t perceive the presence of an item packed away in a box or hidden behind another object on the shelf. This is because visible light waves don’t pass through walls.
But radio waves can!
The RF Grasp robot uses both a camera and an RF reader to find and grab tagged objects, even when they’re fully blocked from the camera’s view.
It consists of a robotic arm attached to a grasping hand. The camera sits on the robot’s wrist. The RF reader stands independent of the robot and relays tracking information to the robot’s control algorithm.
This enables the robot to constantly collect both RF tracking data and a visual picture of its surroundings.
In order to execute an operation, the robot first initiates the seek-and-pluck process by pinging the target object’s RF tag for a sense of its whereabouts.
“It starts by using RF to focus the attention of vision,” says Adib. “Then you use vision to navigate fine maneuvers.”
The sequence is akin to hearing a siren from behind, then turning to look and get a clearer picture of the siren’s source, notes lead author Tara Boroushaki.
With its two complementary senses, RF Grasp zeroes in on the target object.
As it gets closer and even starts manipulating the item, vision – which provides much finer detail than RF – dominates the robot’s decision making.
According to Rodriguez, the robot’s RF sensing can also instantly verify an item’s identity without the need to manipulate the item, expose its barcode, then scan it. This makes it an asset in packed e-commerce warehouses.
Image and content: MIT