Robotic Manipulation

Perception, Planning, and Control

Russ Tedrake

© Russ Tedrake, 2020-2022
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Note: These are working notes used for a course being taught at MIT. They will be updated throughout the Fall 2022 semester.

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Motion Planning

There are a few more essential skills that we need in our toolbox. In this chapter, we will explore some of the powerful methods of kinematic trajectory motion planning.

I'm actually almost proud of making it this far into the notes without covering this topic yet. Writing a relatively simple script for the pose of the gripper, like we did in the bin picking chapter, really can solve a lot of interesting problems. But there are a number of reasons that we might want a more automated solution:
  1. When the environment becomes more cluttered, it is harder to write such a simple solution, and we might have to worry about collisions between the arm and the environment as well as the gripper and the environment.
  2. If we are doing "mobile manipulation" -- our robotic arms are attached to a mobile base -- then the robot might have to operate in many different environments. Even if the workspace is not geometrically complicated, it might still be different enough each time we reach that it requires automated (but possibly still simple) planning.
  3. If the robot is operating in a simple known environment all day long, then it probably makes sense to optimize the trajectories that it is executing; we can often speed up the manipulation process significantly.

We'll focus on the problem of moving an arm through space in this chapter, because that is the classical and very important motivation. But I need to cover this now for another reason, too: it will also soon help us think about programming a more dexterous hand.

I do need to make one important caveat. Despite having done some work in this field myself, I actually really dislike the problem formulation of collision-free motion planning. I think that on the whole, robots are too afraid of bumping into the world (because things still go wrong when they do). I don't think humans are solving these complex geometric problems every time we reach... even when we are reaching in dense clutter (I actually suspect that we are very bad at it). I would much rather see robots that perform well even with very coarse / approximate plans for moving through a cluttered environment, that are not afraid to make incidental contacts, and that can still accomplish the task when they do!

Inverse Kinematics

The goal of this chapter is to solve for motion trajectories. But I would argue that if you really understand how to solve inverse kinematics, then you've got most of what you need to plan trajectories.

We know that that the forward kinematics give us a (nonlinear) mapping from joint angles to e.g. the pose of the gripper: $X^G = f_{kin}(q)$. So, naturally, the problem of inverse kinematics (IK) is about solving for the inverse map, $q = f^{-1}_{kin}(X^G).$ Indeed, that is perhaps the most common and classical question studied in inverse kinematics. But I want you to think of inverse kinematics as a much richer topic than that.

For example, when we were evaluating grasp candidates for bin picking, we had only a soft preference on the orientation of the hand relative to some antipodal grasp. In that case, a full 6 DOF pose would have been an overly constrained specification. And often we have many constraints on the kinematics: some in joint space (like joint limits) and others in Cartesian space (like non-penetration constraints). So really, inverse kinematics is about solving for joint angles in a very rich landscape of objectives and constraints.

Click here to watch the video.

We made extensive use of rich inverse kinematics specifications in our work on humanoid robots. The video above is an example of the interactive inverse kinematics interface (here to help us figure out how to fit the our big humanoid robot into the little Polaris). Here is another video of the same tool being used for the Valkyrie humanoid, where we do specify and end-effector pose, but we also add a joint-centering objective and static stability constraints Fallon14+Marion16.

From end-effector pose to joint angles

With its obvious importance in robotics, you probably won't be surprised to hear that there is an extensive literature on inverse kinematics. But you may be surprised at how extensive and complete the solutions can get. The forward kinematics, $f_{kin}$, is a nonlinear function in general, but it is a very structured one. In fact, with rare exceptions (like if your robot has a helical joint, aka screw joint), the equations governing the valid Cartesian positions of our robots are actually polynomial. "But wait! What about all of those sines and cosines in my kinematic equations?" you say. The trigonometric terms come when we want to relate joint angles with Cartesian coordinates. In $\Re^3$, for two points, $A$ and $B$, on the same rigid body, the (squared) distance between them, $\|p^A - p^B\|^2,$ is a constant. And a joint is just a polynomial constraint between positions on adjoining bodies, e.g. that they occupy the same point in Cartesian space. See Wampler11 for an excellent overview.

example: trig and polynomial kinematics of a two-link arm.

Understanding the solutions to polynomial equations is the subject of algebraic geometry. There is a deep literature on kinematics theory, on symbolic algorithms, and on numerical algorithms. For even very complex kinematic topologies, such as four-bar linkages and Stewart-Gough platforms, we can count the number of solutions, and/or understand the continuous manifold of solutions. For instance, Wampler11 describes a substantial toolbox for numerical algebraic geometry (based on homotopy methods) with impressive results on difficult kinematics problems.

While the algebraic-geometry methods are mostly targeted for offline global analysis, they are not designed for fast real-time inverse kinematics solutions needed in a control loop. The most popular tool these days for real-time inverse kinematics for six- or seven-DOF manipulators is a tool called "IKFast", described in Section 4.1 of Diankov10, that gained popularity because of its effective open-source implementation. Rather than focus on completeness, IKFast uses a number of approximations to provide fast and numerically robust solutions to the "easy" kinematics problems. It leverages the fact that a six-DOF pose constraint on a six-DOF manipulator has a "closed-form" solution with a finite number of joint space configurations that produce the same end-effector pose, and for seven-DOF manipulators it adds a layer of sampling in the last degree of freedom on top of the six-DOF solver.

add an example of calling (or implementing something equivalent to) IKFast and/or Bertini. looks like bertini 2 has python bindings (but not pip) and is GPL3.

These explicit solutions are important to understand because they provide deep insight into the equations, and because they can be fast enough to use inside a more sophisticated solution approach. But the solutions don't provide the rich specification I advocated for above; in particular, they break down once we have inequality constraints instead of equality constraints. For those richer specifications, we will turn to optimization.

IK as constrained optimization

A richer inverse kinematics problem: solve for the joint angles, $q$, that allow the robot to reach into the shelf and grab the object, while avoiding collisions.

We have already discussed the idea of solving differential inverse kinematics as an optimization problem. In that workflow, we started by using the pseudo-inverse of the kinematic Jacobian, but then graduated to thinking about the least-squares formulation of the inverse problem. The more general least-squares setting, we could add additional costs and constraints that would protect us from (nearly) singular Jacobians and could take into account additional constraints from joint limits, joint velocity limits, etc. We could even add collision avoidance constraints. Some of these constraints are quite nonlinear / nonconvex functions of the configuration $q$, but in the differential kinematics setting we were only seeking to find a small change $\Delta q$ around the nominal configuration, so it was quite reasonable to make linear/convex approximations of these nonlinear/nonconvex constraints.

Now we will consider the full formulation, where we try to solve the nonlinear / nonconvex optimization directly, without any constraints on only making a small change to an initial $q$. This is a much harder problem computationally. Using powerful nonlinear optimization solvers like SNOPT, we are often able to solve the problems, even at interactive rates (the example below is quite fun). But there are no guarantees. It could be that a solution exists even if the solver returns "infeasible".

Of course, the differential IK problem and the full IK problem are closely related. In fact, you can think about the differential IK algorithm as doing one step of (projected) gradient descent or one-step of SQP, for the full nonlinear problem.

Drake provides a nice InverseKinematics class that makes it easy to assemble many of the standard kinematic/multibody constraints into a MathematicalProgram. Take a minute to look at the constraints that are offered. You can add constraints on the relative position and/or orientation on two bodies, or that two bodies are more than some minimal distance apart (e.g. for non-penetration) or closer than some distance, and more. This is the way that I want you to think about the IK problem; it is an inverse problem, but one with a potentially very rich set of costs and constraints.

Interactive IK

Despite the nonconvexity of the problem and nontrivial computational cost of evaluating the constraints, we can often solve it at interactive rates. I've assembled a few examples of this in the chapter notebook:

In the first version, I've added sliders to let you control the desired pose of the end-effector. This is the simple version of the IK problem, amenable to more explicit solutions, but we nevertheless solve it with our full nonlinear optimization IK engine (and it does include joint limit constraints). This demo won't look too different from the very first example in the notes, where you used teleop to command the robot to pick up the red brick. In fact, differential IK offers a fine solution to this problem, too.

In the second example, I've tried to highlight the differences between the nonlinear IK problem and the differential IK problem by adding an obstacle directly in front of the robot. Because both our differential IK and IK formulations are able to consume the collision-avoidance constraints, both solutions will try to prevent you from crashing the arm into the post. But if you move the target end-effector position from one side of the post to the other, the full IK solver can switch over to a new solution with the arm on the other side of the post, but the differential IK will never be able to make that leap (it will stay on the first side of the post, refusing to allow a collision).

As the desired end-effector position moves along positive $y$, the IK solver is able to find a new solution with the arm wrapped the other way around the post.

With great power comes great responsibility. The inverse kinematics toolbox allows you to formulate complex optimizations, but your success with solving them will depend partially on how thoughtful you are about choosing your costs and constraints. My basic advice is this:

  1. Try to keep the objective (costs) simple; I typically only use the "joint-centering" quadratic cost on $q$. Putting terms that should be constraints into the cost as penalties leads to lots of cost-function tuning, which can be a nasty business.
  2. Write minimal constraints. You want the set of feasible configurations to be as big as possible. For instance, if you don't need to fully constrain the orientation of the gripper, then don't do it.
I'll follow-up with that second point using the following example.

Grasp the cylinder.

Let's use IK to grasp a cylinder (call it a hand rail). Suppose it doesn't matter where along the cylinder we grasp, nor the orientation at which we grasp it. Then we should write the IK problem using only the minimal version of those constraints.

In the notebook, I've coded up one version of this. I've put the cylinder's pose on the sliders now, so you can move it around the workspace, and watch how the IK solver decides to position the robot. In particular, if you move the cylinder in $\pm y$, you'll see that the robot doesn't try to follow... until the hand gets to the end of the cylinder. Very nice!

One could imagine multiple ways to implement that constraint. Here's how I did it:

    frameB=gripper_frame, p_BQ=[0, 0.1, -0.02],
    frameA=cylinder_frame, p_AQ_lower=[0, 0, -0.5], p_AQ_upper=[0, 0, 0.5])
    frameB=gripper_frame, p_BQ=[0, 0.1, 0.02], 
    frameA=cylinder_frame, p_AQ_lower=[0, 0, -0.5], p_AQ_upper=[0, 0, 0.5])
In words, I've defined two points in the gripper frame; in the notation of the AddPositionConstraint method they are ${}^Bp^{Q}$. Recall the gripper frame is such that $[0, .1, 0]$ is right between the two gripper pads; you should take a moment to make sure you understand where $[0,.1,-0.02]$ and $[0,.1,0.02]$ are. Our constraints require that both of those points should lie exactly on the center line segment of the cylinder. This was a compact way for me to leave the orientation around the cylinder axis as unconstrained, and capture the cylinder position constraints all quite nicely.

We've provided a rich language of constraints for specifying IK problems, including many which involve the kinematics of the robot and the geometry of the robot and the world (e.g., the minimum-distance constraints). Let's take a moment to appreciate the geometric puzzle that we are asking the optimizer to solve.

Visualizing the configuration space

Let's return to the example of the iiwa reaching into the shelf. This IK problem has two major constraints: 1) we want the center of the target sphere to be in the center of the gripper, and 2) we want the arm to avoid collisions with the shelves. In order to plot these constraints, I've frozen three of the joints on the iiwa, leaving only the three corresponding motion in the $x-z$ plane.

The image on the right is a visualization of the "grasp the sphere" constraint in configuration space -- the x,y,z, axes in the visualizer correspond to the three joint angles of the planarized iiwa.

To visualize the constraints, I've sampled a dense grid in the three joint angles of the planarized iiwa, assigning each grid element to 1 if the constraint is satisfied or 0 otherwise, then run a marching cubes algorithm to extract an approximation of the true 3D geometry of this constraint in the configuration space. The "grasp the sphere" constraint produces the nice green geometry I've pictured above on the right; it is clipped by the joint limits. The collision-avoidance constraint, on the other hand, is quite a bit more complicated. To see that, you'd better open up this 3D visualization so you can navigate around it yourself. Scary!

Visualizing the IK optimization problem

Zoomed in. The global optimization problem. Nonlinear optimizers like SNOPT can be pretty amazing sometimes!

Global IK.

When should we use IK vs Differential IK? IK solves a more global problem, but is not guaranteed to succeed. It is also not guaranteed to make small changes to $q$ as you make small changes in the cost/constraints; so you might end up sending large $\Delta q$ commands to your robot. Use IK when you need to solve the more global problem, but then produce the actual $q$ trajectories with trajectory optimization, etc. Or use differential IK if you are able to design smooth commands in end-effector space and simply track them in joint space.

Grasp planning as IK

Kinematic trajectory optimization

In our previous approach, we designed (simple) trajectories in the end-effector coordinates, then used differential IK to get the joint velocity commands. Now we will switch to design the motions directly in joint coordinates, and just add (forward) kinematics constraints.

Trajectory parameterizations

Piecewise polynomial trajectories

B-spline trajectories

Optimization algorithms

B-spline kinematic trajectory optimization.

CHOMP Ratliff09a, STOMP Kalakrishnan11a, KOMOToussaint17. SQP methods vs Augmented Lagrangian

Sampling-based motion planning

The Open Motion Planning Library. We have our own implementations in Drake that are optimized for our collision engines.

Rapidly-exploring random trees (RRT)

The basic RRT

The RRT "Bug Trap"

The Probabilistic Roadmap (PRM)


anytime b-spline smoother

Time-optimal path parameterizations

Active areas of research

Task and motion planning, graphs of convex sets, ...


Door Opening

For this exercise, you will implement a optimization-based inverse kinematics solver to open a cupboard door. You will work exclusively in . You will be asked to complete the following steps:

  1. Write down the constraints on the IK problem of grabbing a cupboard handle.
  2. Formalize the IK problem as an instance of optimization.
  3. Implement the optimization problem using MathematicalProgram.

RRT Motion Planning

For this exercise, you will implement and analyze the RRT algorithm introduced in class. You will work exclusively in . You will be asked to complete the following steps:

  1. Implement the RRT algorithm for the Kuka arm.
  2. Answer questions regarding its properties.

Improving RRT Path Quality

Due to the random process by which nodes are generated, the paths output by RRT can often look somewhat jerky (the "RRT dance" is the favorite dance move of many roboticists). There are many strategies to improve the quality of the paths and in this question we'll explore two. For the sake of this problem, we'll assume path quality refers to path length, i.e. that the goal is to find the shortest possible path, where distance is measured as Euclidean distance in joint space.

  1. One strategy to improve path quality is to post-process paths via "shortcutting", which tries to replace existing portions of a path with shorter segments Geraerts04. This is often implemented with the following algorithm: 1) Randomly select two non-consecutive nodes along the path. 2) Try to connect them with a RRT's extend operator. 3) If the resulting path is better, replace the existing path with the new, better path. Steps 1-3 are repeated until a termination condition (often a finite number of steps or time). For this problem, we can assume that the extend operator is a straight line in joint space. Consider the graph below, where RRT has found a rather jerky path from $q_{start}$ to $q_{goal}$. There is an obstacle (shown in red) and $q_{start}$ and $q_{goal}$ are highlighted in blue (disclaimer: This graph was manually generated to serve as an illustrative example).
    Name one pair of nodes for which the shortcutting algorithm would result in a shorter path (i.e. two nodes along our current solution path for which we could produce a shorter path if we were to directly connect them). You should assume the distance metric is the 2D Euclidean distance.

  2. Shortcutting as a post-processing technique, reasons over the existing path and enables local "re-wiring" of the graph. It is a heuristic and does not, however, guarantee that the tree will encode the shortest path. To explore this, let's zoom in one one iteration of RRT (as illustrated below), where $q_{sample}$ is the randomly generated configuration, $q_{near}$ was the closest node on the existing tree and $q_{new}$ is the RRT extension step from $q_{near}$ in the direction of q_sample. When the standard RRT algorithm (which you implemented in a previous exercise) adds $q_{new}$ to the tree, what node is its parent? If we wanted our tree to encode the shortest path from the starting node, $q_{start}$, to each node in the tree, what node should be the parent node of $q_{new}$?
This idea of dynamically "rewiring" to discover the minimum cost path (which for us is the shortest distance) is a critical aspect of the asymptotically optimal variant of RRT known as RRT* Karaman11. As the number of samples tends towards infinity RRT* finds the optimal path to the goal! This is unlike "plain" RRT, which is provably suboptimal (the intuition for this proof is that RRT "traps" itself because it cannot find better paths as it searches).


  1. Maurice Fallon and Scott Kuindersma and Sisir Karumanchi and Matthew Antone and Toby Schneider and Hongkai Dai and Claudia P\'{e}rez D'Arpino and Robin Deits and Matt DiCicco and Dehann Fourie and Twan Koolen and Pat Marion and Michael Posa and Andr\'{e}s Valenzuela and Kuan-Ting Yu and Julie Shah and Karl Iagnemma and Russ Tedrake and Seth Teller, "An Architecture for Online Affordance-based Perception and Whole-body Planning", Journal of Field Robotics, vol. 32, no. 2, pp. 229-254, September, 2014. [ link ]

  2. Pat Marion and Maurice Fallon and Robin Deits and Andr\'{e}s Valenzuela and Claudia P\'{e}rez D'Arpino and Greg Izatt and Lucas Manuelli and Matt Antone and Hongkai Dai and Twan Koolen and John Carter and Scott Kuindersma and Russ Tedrake, "Director: A User Interface Designed for Robot Operation With Shared Autonomy", Journal of Field Robotics, vol. 1556-4967, 2016. [ link ]

  3. Charles W. Wampler and Andrew J. Sommese, "Numerical algebraic geometry and algebraic kinematics", Acta Numerica, vol. 20, pp. 469-567, 2011.

  4. Rosen Diankov, "Automated Construction of Robotic Manipulation Programs", PhD thesis, Carnegie Mellon University, August, 2010.

  5. Nathan Ratliff and Matthew Zucker and J. Andrew (Drew) Bagnell and Siddhartha Srinivasa, "{CHOMP}: Gradient Optimization Techniques for Efficient Motion Planning", IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) , May, 2009.

  6. Mrinal Kalakrishnan and Sachin Chitta and Evangelos Theodorou and Peter Pastor and Stefan Schaal, "{STOMP}: Stochastic trajectory optimization for motion planning", 2011 IEEE international conference on robotics and automation , pp. 4569--4574, 2011.

  7. Marc Toussaint, "A tutorial on Newton methods for constrained trajectory optimization and relations to SLAM, Gaussian Process smoothing, optimal control, and probabilistic inference", Geometric and numerical foundations of movements, pp. 361--392, 2017.

  8. R. Geraerts and M. Overmars, "A comparative study of probabilistic roadmap planners", Algorithmic Foundations of Robotics V, pp. 43--58, 2004.

  9. S. Karaman and E. Frazzoli, "Sampling-based Algorithms for Optimal Motion Planning", Int. Journal of Robotics Research, vol. 30, pp. 846--894, June, 2011.

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