Transparent, reflective objects now within grasp of robots

Image by Kvistholt Photography

JUL. 14, 2020

Kitchen robots are a popular vision of the future, but if a robot of today tries to grasp a kitchen staple such as a clear measuring cup or a shiny knife, it likely won't be able to. Transparent and reflective objects are the things of robot nightmares.

Kitchen robots are a popular vision of the future, but if a robot of today tries to grasp a kitchen staple such as a clear measuring cup or a shiny knife, it likely won’t be able to. Transparent and reflective objects are the things of robot nightmares.
Roboticists at Carnegie Mellon University, however, report success with a new technique they’ve developed for teaching robots to pick up these troublesome objects. The technique doesn’t require fancy sensors, exhaustive training or human guidance, but relies primarily on a colour camera. The researchers will present this new system during this summer’s International Conference on Robotics and Automation virtual conference.

Depth cameras, which shine infrared light on an object to determine its shape, work well for identifying opaque objects. But infrared light passes right through clear objects and scatters off reflective surfaces. Thus, depth cameras can’t calculate an accurate shape, resulting in largely flat or hole-riddled shapes for transparent and reflective objects.
But the colour camera can see transparent and reflective objects as well as opaque ones. So CMU scientists developed a colour camera system to recognize shapes based on colour. A standard camera can’t measure shapes like a depth camera, but the researchers nevertheless were able to train the new system to imitate the depth system and implicitly infer shape to grasp objects. They did so using depth camera images of opaque objects paired with colour images of those same objects.
Once trained, the colour camera system was applied to transparent and shiny objects. Based on those images, along with whatever scant information a depth camera could provide, the system could grasp these challenging objects with a high degree of success.

The CMU system uses a commercial RGB-D camera that’s capable of both colour images (RGB) and depth images (D). The system can use this single sensor to sort through recyclables or other collections of objects — some opaque, some transparent, some reflective.


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