Bipedal Robot Cassie Cal Learns to Juggle

Cassie may not have any arms to work with, but that doesn’t keep it from juggling a ball on its head

5 min read
Cassie Cal bipedal robot juggling
Image: UC Berkeley

There’s no particular reason why knowing how to juggle would be a useful skill for a robot. Despite this, robots are frequently taught how to juggle things. Blind robots can juggle, humanoid robots can juggle, and even drones can juggle. Why? Because juggling is hard, man! You have to think about a bunch of different things at once, and also do a bunch of different things at once, which this particular human at least finds to be overly stressful. While juggling may not stress robots out, it does require carefully coordinated sensing and computing and actuation, which means that it’s as good a task as any (and a more entertaining task than most) for testing the capabilities of your system.

UC Berkeley’s Cassie Cal robot, which consists of two legs and what could be called a torso if you were feeling charitable, has just learned to juggle by bouncing a ball on what would be her head if she had one of those. The idea is that if Cassie can juggle while balancing at the same time, she’ll be better able to do other things that require dynamic multitasking, too. And if that doesn’t work out, she’ll still be able to join the circus.

Cassie’s juggling is assisted by an external motion capture system that tracks the location of the ball, but otherwise everything is autonomous. Cassie is able to juggle the ball by leaning forwards and backwards, left and right, and moving up and down. She does this while maintaining her own balance, which is the whole point of this research—successfully executing two dynamic behaviors that may sometimes be at odds with one another. The end goal here is not to make a better juggling robot, but rather to explore dynamic multitasking, a skill that robots will need in order to be successful in human environments.

This work is from the Hybrid Robotics Lab at UC Berkeley, led by Koushil Sreenath, and is being done by Katherine Poggensee, Albert Li, Daniel Sotsaikich, Bike Zhang, and Prasanth Kotaru.

For a bit more detail, we spoke with Albert Li via email.

Cassie Cal robot UC Berkeley’s Cassie Cal getting ready to juggle. Image: UC Berkeley

IEEE Spectrum: What would be involved in getting Cassie to juggle without relying on motion capture?

Albert Li: Our motivation for starting off with motion capture was to first address the control challenge of juggling on a biped without worrying about implementing the perception. We actually do have a ball detector working on a camera, which would mean we wouldn’t have to rely on the motion capture system. However, we need to mount the camera in a way that it would provide the best upwards field of view, and we also have develop a reliable estimator. The estimator is particularly important because when the ball gets close enough to the camera, we actually can’t track the ball and have to assume our dynamic models describe its motion accurately enough until it bounces back up.

What keeps Cassie from juggling indefinitely?

There are a few factors that affect how long Cassie can sustain a juggle. While in simulation the paddle exhibits homogeneous properties like its stiffness and damping, in reality every surface has anisotropic contact properties. So, there are parts of the paddle which may be better for juggling than others (and importantly, react differently than modeled). These differences in contact are also exacerbated due to how the paddle is cantilevered when mounted on Cassie. When the ball hits these areas, it leads to a larger than expected error in a juggle. Due to the small size of the paddle, the ball may then just hit the paddle’s edge and end the juggling run. Over a very long run, this is a likely occurrence. Additionally, some large juggling errors could cause Cassie’s feet to slip slightly, which ends up changing the stable standing position over time. Since this version of the controller assumes Cassie is stationary, this change in position eventually leads to poor juggles and failure.

Would Cassie be able to juggle while walking (or hovershoe-ing)?

Walking (and hovershoe-ing) while juggling is a far more challenging problem and is certainly a goal for future research. Some of these challenges include getting the paddle to precise poses to juggle the ball while also moving to avoid any destabilizing effects of stepping incorrectly. The number of juggles per step of walking could also vary and make the mathematics of the problem more challenging. The controller goal is also more involved. While the current goal of the juggling controller is to juggle the ball to a static apex position, with a walking juggling controller, we may instead want to hit the ball forwards and also walk forwards to bounce it, juggle the ball along a particular path, etc. Solving such challenges would be the main thrusts of the follow-up research.

Can you give an example of a practical task that would be made possible by using a controller like this?

Studying juggling means studying contact behavior and leveraging our models of it to achieve a known objective. Juggling could also be used to study predictable post-contact flight behavior. Consider the scenario where a robot is attempting to make a catch, but fails, letting the ball to bounce off of its hand, and then recovering the catch. This behavior could also be intentional: It is often easier to first execute a bounce to direct the target and then perform a subsequent action. For example, volleyball players could in principle directly hit a spiked ball back, but almost always bump the ball back up and then return it.

Even beyond this motivating example, the kinds of models we employ to get juggling working are more generally applicable to any task that involves contact, which could include tasks besides bouncing like sliding and rolling. For example, clearing space on a desk by pushing objects to the side may be preferable than individually manipulating each and every object on it.

You mention collaborative juggling or juggling multiple balls—is that something you’ve tried yet? Can you talk a bit more about what you’re working on next? 

We haven’t yet started working on collaborative or multi-ball juggling, but that’s also a goal for future work. Juggling multiple balls statically is probably the most reasonable next goal, but presents additional challenges. For instance, you have to encode a notion of juggling urgency (if the second ball isn’t hit hard enough, you have less time to get the first ball up before you get back to the second one).  

On the other hand, collaborative human-robot juggling requires a more advanced decision-making framework. To get robust multi-agent juggling, the robot will need to employ some sort of probabilistic model of the expected human behavior (are they likely to move somewhere? Are they trying to catch the ball high or low? Is it safe to hit the ball back?). In general, developing such human models is difficult since humans are fairly unpredictable and often don’t exhibit rational behavior. This will be a focus of future work.

[ Hybrid Robotics Lab ]

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“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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