Simulator helps robots sharpen cutting skills
Image credit: Eric Heiden/NVIDIA
US researchers have unveiled a new simulator for robotic cutting that can accurately replicate the forces acting on a knife as it slices through common foods such as fruit and vegetables.
The system – developed by researchers from the University of Southern California (USC) Department of Computer Science and computing company Nvidia – could also simulate cutting through human tissue, offering potential applications in surgical robotics.
Many researchers in the past have had trouble creating intelligent robots that replicate cutting. One challenge, they’ve argued, is that no two objects are the same, and current robotic cutting systems struggle with a variation.
To overcome this, the team devised a unique approach to simulate cutting by introducing springs between the two halves of the object being cut, represented by a mesh. These springs are weakened over time in proportion to the force exerted by the knife on the mesh.
“What makes ours a special simulator is that it is ‘differentiable’, so it can help us automatically tune these simulation parameters from real-world measurements,” said Eric Heiden, a computer science student at USC. “That’s important because closing this reality gap is a significant challenge for roboticists today. Without this, robots may never break out of simulation into the real world.”
To transfer skills from simulation to reality, the simulator must be able to model an actual system. In one experiment, the research team used a dataset of force profiles from a physical robot to produce accurate predictions of how the knife would move in real life.
Besides applications in the food-processing industry, where robots could take over dangerous tasks such as repetitive cutting, the team believes the simulator could improve force haptic feedback accuracy in surgical robots, helping to guide surgeons and prevent injury.
“Here, it is important to have an accurate model of the cutting process and to reproduce the forces acting on the cutting tool as different tissue are being cut,” Heiden explained. “With our approach, we are able to automatically tune our simulator to match different materials and achieve highly accurate simulations of the force profile.”
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