Robots working in human environments need to perform dexterous manipulation on a wide variety of objects. Such tasks typically involve making or breaking contacts with other objects, leading to sudden discontinuities in the task dynamics. Furthermore, many objects exhibit configuration-dependent dynamics, such as a refrigerator door that stays closed magnetically. While the presence of such nonlinearities in task dynamics can make it challenging to represent good manipulation policies and models, if well-understood, these nonlinearities can also be leveraged to improve task performance and reduce uncertainty. For example, when inserting a screw into the underside of a table, if direct visual feedback is not available, indirect feedback from wiggling the screw (a semi-rigid connection between the screw and the table) can be leveraged to ascertain whether the screw is inserted or not. In other words, the sensed change in dynamics (from free-body motion to rigid contact) serves as a landmark, partially informing the robot about the state of the system and reducing uncertainty. Such dynamics can be naturally represented as hybrid dynamics models, in which a discrete state represents which continuous dynamics model is active at any given time.
Current model-free reinforcement learning approaches [1, 2, 3, 4] can learn to cope with hybrid dynamics implicitly, but require large amounts of data to do so, scale poorly as the problem complexity grows, face representational issues near discontinuities, and do not transfer well to significantly different problems. Conversely, hierarchical planning-based methods [5, 6, 7, 8] can represent and reason about hybrid dynamics directly, scale well via plan decomposition, and work well on a wide variety of problems, but typically rely on precise hand-specified models and task decompositions. We propose a new algorithm, Action-conditional Changepoint Detection using Approximate Model Parameters (Act-CHAMP), to combine the advantages of these opposing paradigms. Act-CHAMP (1) learns hybrid motion models of complex objects from unsegmented human demonstrations, (2) reasons about actions, in addition to states, for model inference, (3) is more robust to noise in comparison to the observation-only model inference approaches, and (4) develops models that are rich enough to be used for object manipulation tasks under uncertainty. Further, we combine Act-CHAMP with a recently proposed hierarchical POMDP planner, POMDP-HD , to develop an end-to-end system that takes unsegmented human demonstrations guiding robot’s interactions with an object as input and develops motion plans that can leverage learned hybrid model to perform planning under uncertainty for novel tasks involving that object.
Act-CHAMP is an action-conditional algorithm that offers numerous natural benefits over the state-of-the-art observation-only inference methods. First, Act-CHAMP can perform more robust model inference in the presence of noisy demonstrations. For example, if a demonstration predominantly contains actions that are applied orthogonally to the axis of motion of a drawer, due to the lack of observed motion, an observation-only model inference can easily misclassify the motion model to be rigid; on the other hand, an action-conditional inference can maintain an equal likelihood of observing either a rigid or a prismatic model since no movement would be expected under either model given the action. Second, due to an explicit representation of actions in the learned models, they can be directly used for motion planning. Third, an action-conditional model can be used by the robot to take informative exploratory actions for disambiguating between candidate object motion models.
To evaluate the proposed approach, we first show that Act-CHAMP can infer hybrid motion models of articulated objects with higher fidelity and less data than a state-of-the-art observation-only algorithm, CHAMP, . We also consider two degenerate cases of noisy demonstrations consisting of predominantly actions applied orthogonal to the axis of motion to demonstrate its robustness to noise. Next, in a full end-to-end test, we learn hybrid kinematics models for a microwave and a drawer from human demonstrations and successfully perform manipulation tasks of opening and closing both the objects in new situations with high success rate, showing the planner’s ability to generalize. Finally, we show that the planner can leverage learned models creatively to complete a novel task efficiently—our method learns a kinematics model of a stapler and uses it to dexterously place the stapler at the target point, reachable only through a narrow corridor in the task configuration space.
2 Related Works
Learning Articulation Motion Models from Observations: A wide variety of approaches have been studied in the literature to learn kinematic models for articulated objects directly from visual data [10, 11, 9, 12]. Sturm et al. [13, 10] proposed a probabilistic framework to learn motion models of articulation bodies from human demonstrations. However, the framework assumes that the objects are governed by a single articulation model, which may not hold true for all the objects. For example, a stapler intrinsically changes its articulation state (e.g. rigid vs. rotational) based on the relative angle between its arms. To address this, Niekum et al.  proposed an online changepoint detection algorithm, CHAMP, to detect both the governing articulation model and the temporal changepoints in the articulation relationship of the objects. In this work, we combine the CHAMP algorithm with action-conditional model inference to learn hybrid kinematics models of objects exhibiting configuration-dependent kienmatics.
Interactive Perception: Interactive perception approaches aim at leveraging the robot’s actions to better perceive objects and build accurate kinematic models [14, 15, 16]. Katz et al. first used this approach to learn articulation motion models for planar objects , and later extended it to use RGB-D data to learn 3D kinematics of articulated objects 
. Though these approaches of interactive perception use robot’s actions to generate perceptual signals for model estimation, they require the robot’s interaction behavior to be pre-scripted by an expert. Also, these approaches do not explicitly reason about actions while performing model inference as Act-CHAMP does.
Learning Dynamical Models from Pixels: Learning object kinematic/dynamics models directly from raw visual data is a promising direction for learning object motion models. The Embed to Control (E2C) method proposed by Watter et al.  uses a novel deep probabilistic generative model to convert raw image pixels into a low-dimensional latent space, in which stochastic optimal control can be applied. Byravan et al. developed SE3-nets  and SE-3Pose-Nets 
to learn predictive dynamics models of object motion in a scene from input point-cloud data and applied action vectors which can be used to directly perform robot visuomotor control from input point cloud data. While deep neural network-based approaches have shown much potential, the biggest hurdle in using such approaches to a wide variety of real-world robotics tasks is the need for a vast amount of training data, which is often not readily available. Also, these approaches tend to transfer poorly to new tasks. In this work, we combine model learning with generalizable planning under uncertainty to address these challenges, though deep learning methods may be useful in future work, in place of our simplified perception system.
Other Object Motion Modeling Frameworks: Articulation motion models can also be seen as geometric constraints imposed on two or more rigid bodies. Perez et al.  have proposed a method, C-LEARN, to learn geometric constraints encountered in a manipulation task from non-expert human demonstrations. Subramani et al. [21, 22] developed an approach to learn geometric constraints governing relative motion between objects from human demonstrations. Their proposed approach can successfully learn geometric constraints even from noisy demonstrations. However, the use of custom force-sensitive hand-held tools to record human demonstrations restricts the generalizability of the approach to a wider set of tasks.
Changepoint Detection: Many kinematic relationships between objects are not well described by a single smooth model. For example, in most configurations, a microwave door is a revolute joint with respect to the microwave; however, due to the presence of a latch, this relationship changes to a rigid one when the door is closed. We can define a temporal changepoint in the time series of the observed motion of such an object to mark the transition point between the two governing motion models. The CHAMP algorithm [23, 9]
computes the joint probability of observing a changepoint at timeand an event , denoting that given a changepoint at time , the MAP choice of changepoints have occurred prior to the time , in a given time series of observations with the segment from to being governed by the model
which results in
where is the model evidence for the segment between time , and is the probability of the governing model being
. Assuming that the data after a changepoint is independent of the data prior to that changepoint, the position of changepoints in the time series can be modeled as a Markov chain in which the transition probabilities are defined by the time since the last changepoint,
By searching for the values of that maximize , we can recover the Viterbi path for any point. We can repeat this process until the time is reached to estimate all the changepoints that occurred in the given time series .
Hybrid Dynamics: In a hybrid dynamics model the states of the system evolve with time over both continuous space and a finite set of discrete states . Each discrete state of the system denotes a separate dynamics model that governs the evolution of the continuous states. The discrete state transitions can be represented as a directed graph with each possible discrete state corresponding to a node and edges () marking possible transitions between the nodes. These transitions are conditioned on the continuous states. A transition from the discrete state to another state happens if the continuous states are in the guard set of the edge where , and is the power set of . Thus, for each discrete state , in a hybrid dynamics model we can define where , , , and are the continuous state, control input, observation variables, state dynamics and observation functions respectively. A finite state Markov chain can be used to model the evolution of the discrete states of the system. Defining the state transition matrix as , the discrete state evolution can be given as .
In this section, we present the details of our proposed algorithm, Act-CHAMP. We start with the details of the action-conditional model inference that is used to detect changepoints in the given human demonstrations in section 4.1. Then in section 4.2, we describe how detected motion models and changepoints can be used to build hybrid kinematic models for the objects. Later, in section 4.3, we show how the learned hybrid kinematics models can be used to efficiently perform hierarchical POMDP planning in novel manipulation tasks.
4.1 Action-Conditional Model Inference
We infer the governing motion model between two rigid objects (or object parts) from time-series observations, (relative motion between the two objects), as well as the corresponding applied actions, , observed from human demonstrations. Following the framework proposed by Sturm et al. , we define the relative transform between two objects with poses and at time as: 111The operators and represent motion composition operations. For example, if poses , are represented as homogeneous matrices, then these operators correspond to matrix multiplications and its inverse multiplication, , respectively.. Additionally, we define an action taken by the demonstrator at a time as the intended displacement to be applied to the relative transform between two objects from time to as: . For a given time series of observations and the corresponding applied actions , we define the model evidence for a model having parameters as:
where is the likelihood of observing the relative transform, , under articulation model when the observed relative transform at time was and an action was applied . Alternatively, we can define it as:
where is the predicted relative pose under the model at time t. For a given observation and a corresponding applied action , a predicted configuration can be calculated as:
where and represent the forward and inverse kinematics functions defined for model connecting the the observed relative pose at time with a unique configuration expressed in the generalized coordinates of the model (e.g. a position along the prismatic axis, or an angle with respect to the axis of rotation) respectively. We define Jacobian at a time as where and represent small perturbations applied to the relative pose and the configuration, respectively.
Action-Conditional Changepoint Detection: In the CHAMP algorithm, the evidence for a model being the governing model for the segment between time and is calculated by conditioning only on observations. However, this can easily lead to false detection of changepoints resulting in an inaccurate system model. Consider an example case of deducing the motion model for a drawer from a noisy demonstration in which the majority of applied actions are orthogonal to the axis of motion of the drawer. Due to intermittent displacements, an observation-only model inference approach can falsely detect changepoints in the system motion model. On the other hand, an action-conditional inference can maintain an equal likelihood of observing either a rigid or a prismatic model under off-axis actions, leading to more accurate system model detection. Hence, we propose to use the action-conditional model inference defined in the last section to calculate the model evidence for changepoint estimation. Specifically, we redefine the model evidence for changepoint estimation as
We perform the model inference on the given time series of observations and actions using an approximate BIC-penalized likelihood function, proposed by Niekum et al. . Complete definitions of forward and inverse kinematics models for rigid, revolute and prismatic models and the data-likelihood observation model are beyond the scope of this work, but further details can be found in [9, 10].
4.2 Learning Hybrid Motion Models
We propose to model the relative motion of the objects demonstrating configuration-dependent motion models as a hybrid model consisting of multiple local models, of which only one is active at a time. We derive the transition conditions between the local models using the estimated changepoints from the Act-CHAMP algorithm. Note that a changepoint at denoting a transition from model to model will correspond to the observed relative transform between the two objects in the given time series of observation . The inverse kinematics function can be used to find the configurational changepoint , a fixed configuration in the state space defined for model , that marks the transition from model to the next model . Using this knowledge, we can represent the two models and as two discrete states of the hybrid model and define the guard set for the edge as Similarly, the guard set for the edge marking the reverse transition from model to , will be
If a third model is then detected for the system which is active when , it can be easily added to the hybrid model by adding new edges and with the corresponding guard sets defined along the same lines. Accordingly, the guard set will be updated as . Thus, by combining together all discovered local models and their corresponding transition conditions, a complete hybrid kinematics model of the system can be learned directly from unsegmented human demonstrations. Note that while we describe the hybrid model construction for one-DoF local models here, the same approach can be extended to multiple DoF models by defining the guard sets appropriately.
The motion model for each of the local models can be constructed using the learned forward and inverse kinematics functions. Let , and denote the 6-DoF position and velocity of the object being manipulated by the robot (e.g. the door in the case of a microwave), and the action applied on the object at time , respectively. The state transition function and the observation function are defined as:
where , , and denote the learned forward kinematics, inverse kinematics functions, and Jacobian for the model with optimal model parameters , respectively, denotes the associated process noise vector due to the modeling errors, and denotes the observational noise vector. Process noise covariance matrix can be calculated from a distribution of predicted poses obtained by using estimated model parameters for different demonstrations for the same object. Since the same perception system is used for both model inference and manipulation, the observation noise covariance matrix is defined to be the same as the model inference observation error matrix .
4.3 POMDP Planning Using Learned Models
Estimating model parameters from noisy observations lead to inherent modeling errors in the learned models. Noisy feedback from imperfect sensors further increases uncertainty in the estimated state. If a motion plan does not account for this state uncertainty, it can easily lead to failures upon execution. Formulating the manipulation planning problem as a POMDP ensures that the state uncertainty is accounted for while developing the manipulation plans. Moreover, a POMDP formulation helps the system to actively take information-gathering actions, increasing the probability of success during execution.
Another challenge in general manipulation tasks is that they may involve making and breaking contacts with the environment. Hybrid dynamics models can be used to accurately model dynamics that change suddenly due to these types of contacts. A hierarchical POMDP planner for manipulation tasks involving contacts, the POMDP-HD planner, has been recently proposed by Jain and Niekum . The POMDP-HD planner exploits the fact that the states marking transitions in the local models of a hybrid dynamics model can be treated as “landmarks” which provide information that can reduce state uncertainty. The POMDP-HD planner first plans at the high-level to develop candidate sequences of local models, “landmarks”, to visit along the path so as to reduce the state uncertainty. Next, it converts the candidate high-level plans to equivalent continuous space trajectories using the low-level planner. The cost-to-go for each of these trajectories is then estimated using a cost function penalizing the final state uncertainty while fulfilling the task objective. The continuous space trajectory with the minimum cost is returned as the best plan. A hierarchical POMDP planning approach also helps the POMDP-HD planner to decompose a long horizon POMDP into a sequence of smaller POMDPs for segments between these landmarks. This decomposition helps in making long-horizon POMDP problems tractable, which otherwise, can become intractable due to exponentially increasing computational cost with the time horizon . Motivated by these benefits, we have combined Act-CHAMP with the POMDP-HD planner to develop an end-to-end system that can learn effective hybrid kinematics models for objects from human demonstrations and perform manipulation tasks using the learned models.
In the first set of experiments, we compare the model inference performance of Act-CHAMP with the CHAMP algorithm , to estimate motion models for a microwave and a drawer. Next, we discuss the results of manipulation experiments to open and close the microwave door and the drawer using the learned models in a POMDP setting. Finally, we show how our end-to-end system can learn a hybrid kinematic model for a desk stapler from demonstrations and leverage this knowledge to perform a novel manipulation task. We provided kinesthetic demonstrations to a two-armed robot, in which the human (expert) physically moved the right arm of the robot, while the left arm shadowed the motion of the right arm to interact with objects while collecting unobstructed visual data. Relative poses of object parts were recorded as time-series observations with an RGB-D sensor using SimTrack object tracker . For each time step , the demonstrator’s action on the object was defined as the difference between the position of the right end-effector at times and .
5.1 Learning Kinematics Models for Objects
We collected four sets of demonstrations to estimate motion models for the microwave and the drawer. Two sets provide low-noise data, by manipulating the door handle or drawer knob via a solid grasp. The other two sets provided noisier data, in which the actions were applied by pushing with the end-effector without a grasp.
With grasp: Both algorithms (CHAMP and Act-CHAMP) detected a single changepoint in the articulated motion of the microwave door and determined the trajectory to be composed of two motion models, namely rigid and revolute for a test set of 20 trials with success (Table 1). For the drawer, both algorithms were able to successfully determine its motion to be composed of a single prismatic motion model for a test case of 20 trials with complete success (Table 1). This demonstrates that for clean, information-rich demonstrations, Act-CHAMP can perform on par with the baseline.
Microwave without grasp: When actions are applied directly on the microwave door, the majority of the applied actions are orthogonal to the axis of motion leading to low-information demonstrations. In this case, the observed significant relative displacement was found to be around sparser333 of significant observed displacement = in comparison to the microwave-with-grasp case (on average, only of the observed displacements were found to be greater than the threshold of in comparison to for the microwave-with-grasp case). Extremely temporally sparse displacements combined with observational noise results in poor model inference using either of the algorithms. However, while CHAMP almost completely failed to detect correct motion models (success ), Act-CHAMP was able to correctly detect models in almost one-third of the trials with success rate (see Table 1).
Drawer without grasp: When the actions were applied by pushing on the drawer, observed significant relative displacement was found to be around sparser than the drawer-with-grasp case ( in comparison to ). Temporal sparsity of relative displacements led CHAMP to falsely detect a changepoint in the provided demonstration and determine that the articulation motion model of the drawer to be composed of two separate prismatic articulation models with different model parameters (third panel from the left in Figure 1
). However, due to action-conditional inference, Act-CHAMP correctly classified the motion to be composed of only one articulation model (rightmost panel in Figure1). Act-CHAMP was found to outperform the CHAMP algorithm, correctly detecting the governing articulation model with accuracy (see Table 1).
|Microwave with grasp||20/20 (100%)||20/20 (100%)|
|Microwave without grasp||1/20 (5%)||6/20 (30%)|
|Drawer with grasp||20/20 (100%)||20/20 (100%)|
|Drawer without grasp||18/40 (45%)||29/40 (72.5%)|
5.2 Object Manipulation Using Learned Models
To demonstrate that the learned models are sufficiently accurate for motion planning under uncertainty, we utilized them to perform the tasks of opening and closing a microwave door and a drawer using a robot manipulator. The POMDP-HD planner plans in the generalized coordinate space for each of the models and afterward converts the plan into Cartesian path waypoints to be followed by the robot end-effector. Figure 2 [left two panels] shows the belief space and actual trajectories for the microwave and drawer manipulation tasks for one task each. For both the objects, low final errors were reported, for the microwave and for the drawer, validating effectiveness of the proposed system.
5.3 Leveraging Learned Models for Novel Manipulations
Finally, we show that when combined, our learned models and planner are rich enough to complete novel tasks under uncertainty that require intelligent use of object kinematics. To do so, we use the proposed end-to-end system—Act-CHAMP combined with the POMDP-HD planner—to perform a manipulation task of placing a desk stapler at a target point on top of a tall stack of books. Due to the height of the stack, it is challenging to plan a collision-free path to deliver the stapler to the target location; if the robot attempts to place the stapler at the target point while its governing kinematic model is revolute, the lower arm of the stapler will swing freely and collide with the obstacle. However, a feasible collision-free motion plan can be obtained if the robot first closes and locks the stapler (i.e. rigid articulation), and then proceeds towards the goal. To change the state of the stapler from revolute to rigid, the robot can plan to make contact with the table surface, in order to press down and lock the stapler in a non-prehensile fashion.
As the task involves making and breaking contacts with the environment, we need to extend the learned hybrid motion model of the stapler to include local models due to contacts. We approximately define the contact state between the stapler and the table as to be either a line contact (an edge of the lower arm of the stapler in contact with the table), a surface contact (the lower arm lying flat on the table) or no contact. The set of possible local models for the hybrid task kinematics can be obtained by taking a Cartesian product of the set of possible kinematic models for the stapler and the set of possible contact states between the stapler and the table. However, if the stapler is in the rigid mode, its motion would be the same under all contact states. Hence, a compact task kinematics model would consist of four local models—the stapler in revolute mode with no contact with the table, the stapler in revolute mode with a line contact with the table, the stapler in revolute mode with a surface contact with the table, and the stapler in rigid mode.
Given a human demonstration of robot’s interaction with the stapler as input, the proposed system first learns a hybrid kinematics model for the stapler and then extends it to the hybrid task model using the provided task-specific parameters. Next, the POMDP-HD planner uses the learned task model to develop motion plans in order to complete the task with minimum final state uncertainty555Experimental details are included in the appendices..Motion plans generated by the planner are shown in Figure 2 [right panels]. As can be seen from the plots, the planner plans to make contacts with the table in order to reduce the relative angle between the stapler arms and change the articulation model of the stapler. The plan drags the stapler along the surface of the table, indicating that it waits until it is highly confident that the stapler has become rigid before breaking contact. Making contacts with the table along the path also helps in funneling down the uncertainty in stapler’s location relative to the table in a direction parallel to the table plane normal, thereby increasing the probability of reaching the target point successfully. Figure 3 shows the snapshots of the motion plan and actual execution of the robot performing the task.
Robots working in human environments require a fast and data-efficient way to learn motion models of objects around them in order to interact with them dexterously. We present a novel algorithm Act-CHAMP, that performs action-conditional model inference to learn hybrid kinematics models of objects from unsegmented human demonstrations. Action-conditional inference enables Act-CHAMP to deduce articulation motion models with higher accuracy than the current state-of-the-art in the presence of noise and leads to the development of models that can be used directly for manipulation planning. Furthermore, we combine Act-CHAMP with the POMDP-HD planner , a hierarchical POMDP planner that can plan under hybrid dynamics, to develop an end-to-end system that can learn hybrid kinematics models for objects from demonstrations and use them to perform manipulation tasks involving those objects. Finally, we demonstrate that the proposed end-to-end system can learn the motion model for a complex articulated object (stapler) and use it for a novel task in a manner that has not been previously observed.
One advantage of using an action-conditional model inference approach over observation-only approaches is that it can enable robots to take informative exploratory actions for learning object motion models autonomously. Hence, a natural extension for the current work is to develop an active learning framework that can be used by a robot to autonomously learn the motion models of objects in a small number of trials. Another promising direction is to infer more complex quasi-static articulation models between two objects in contact. For example, a cup placed on a table cannot move towards the table plane as long as contact exists between them. This restriction can be viewed as though the contact has caused the two objects to be in a quasi-static articulation relationship. Taken together, these advances will move the state-of-the-art closer to a task-generic understanding of planning with complex objects in contact-rich settings.
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Appendix A Experimental Details
a.1 Demonstration Setup
a.2 Model Inference Performance Evaluation
|Changepoint Detection||Error in Estimated|
|with grasp||ActCHAMP||20/20 (100%)||—||Axis:|
|without grasp||ActCHAMP||29/40 (72.5%)||—||Axis:|
Appendix B Microwave and Drawer Manipulation
We conducted manipulation experiments for the microwave and the drawer for different task conditions. Belief space and actual trajectories for one task for each of the object is shown in Figure 5. More statistical analysis is presented in Table 3.
|Experiments||Final Error||Relative Error|
|Microwave (3 trials)||0.0548 0.0149||0.115 0.0311|
|Drawer (5 trials)||0.56 0.338||0.0436 0.0293|
Appendix C Stapler Experimental Details
Using human demonstrations, the system begins by learning the hybrid kinematics model for the stapler. We define the stapler state in a global frame as , where represents the Cartesian coordinates of the hinge of the stapler (estimated center of rotation for the revolute model) and represents the angle between the two arms. The control input vector is defined as an applied displacement vector in the Cartesian space .
We use LQR-RRT*  as the low-level planner in the POMDP-HD planner. We define to represent belief over the system states with an associated covariance matrix . The task objective is to minimize a cost function ,
where each edge corresponds to a trajectory having time steps, is a vector composed of columns of the covariance matrix at time , is the goal coordinates in Cartesian space, and , and are cost matrices associated with the state, input, and covariance matrix. Observations consisted of the Cartesian position of the estimated center of rotation and the relative angle between the two stapler arms. The upper arm of the stapler was grasped using the robot’s end effector; however, no predefined location for grasping the stapler was specified.