Hello,

We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

  • melanie gonick/MIT
  • Robotic sorting gets a grip

    Robots learn to pick up items and classify them.

    • by Jennifer Chu
    • April 25, 2018
    • Elliott Donlon (left) and Francois Hogan observe the robotic sorting arm.

    Engineers from MIT and Princeton 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 general operations: picking (the act of successfully grasping an object) and perceiving (the ability to recognize and classify an object, once grasped).   

    The researchers engineered a standard 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; gripping the object vertically like a claw; or, for objects that lie flush against a wall, gripping vertically and then using a flexible spatula to slide between the object and the wall.

    This story is part of the May/June 2018 Issue of the MIT News magazine
    See the rest of the issue
    Subscribe

    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 robotic sorting arm at work.
    melanie gonick/MIT

    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 Prince-ton will present a paper detailing their system at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in May.

    Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.

    Subscribe today
    The robotic sorting arm at work.
    melanie gonick/MIT
    Next in MIT News
    Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to MIT Technology Review.
    • Print + All Access Digital {! insider.prices.print_digital !}* Best Value

      {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

      The best of MIT Technology Review in print and online, plus unlimited access to our online archive, an ad-free web experience, discounts to MIT Technology Review events, and The Download delivered to your email in-box each weekday.

      See details+

      12-month subscription

      Unlimited access to all our daily online news and feature stories

      6 bi-monthly issues of print + digital magazine

      10% discount to MIT Technology Review events

      Access to entire PDF magazine archive dating back to 1899

      Ad-free website experience

      The Download: newsletter delivered daily

    • All Access Digital {! insider.prices.digital !}*

      {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

      The digital magazine, plus unlimited site access, our online archive, and The Download delivered to your email in-box each weekday.

      See details+

      12-month subscription

      Unlimited access to all our daily online news and feature stories

      Digital magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

      Access to entire PDF magazine archive dating back to 1899

      The Download: newsletter delivered daily

    • Print Subscription {! insider.prices.print_only !}*

      {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

      Six print issues per year plus The Download delivered to your email in-box each weekday.

      See details+

      12-month subscription

      Print magazine (6 bi-monthly issues)

      The Download: newsletter delivered daily

    /3
    You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.

    MIT News = for alumni only.

    Are you an MIT alum?
    Sign in now to read all MIT alumni news and class notes— or to manage your magazine subscription.

    Sign in and read on