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Algorithms developed at MIT lead to smarter, more efficient robot arms

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By combining two innovative algorithms developed at MIT, Researchers in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) and the Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS) have built a new robotic motion-planning system that calculates much more efficient trajectories through free space.

While it seems natural for human beings, designing a set of instructions for a robot to spontaneously plan trajectories around obstacles in free space is a monstrously complex computation.

As a result, most most-planning algorithms abandon the notion of finding the most efficient path between the initial state of a robot and its goal, settling instead on any path that will not introduce collisions.

This is not a particularly efficient approach, and one that the CSAIL and LIDS researchers have markedly improved upon with their new robotic motion-planning system.

Robots guided by the new system not only save time and energy by moving more efficiently, but they also move more predictably. This is an important consideration when developing robotic systems designed to interact with humans.

To test their new system, the researchers carried out simulations of a robot trying to grasp an object in one robotic hand. In these tests, a standard motion-planning algorithm took almost four times as long as the newly developed system to calculate an initial path, as well as resulting in a route that was almost three times as long.

In addition to testing the new algorithm in simulations, the researchers tested it on a PR2 robot at CSAIL, the results of which are pictured at right.

The top time-lapse photo depicts a robot guided by a standard algorithm, while the bottom photo depicts a robot using the newly developed one as it attempts to grasp a coffee cup. The latter demonstrates how the new algorithm results in significantly more efficient and predictable movements.

Researchers at Willow Grove, the company that produces PR2 robots, are keeping a close eye on this new research, with plans to add the algorithm to the suite of motion-planning software that comes with the robots when it has been more fully developed.

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