A robot that senses hidden objects

The researchers at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) have developed a robot that uses radio waves, which can pass through walls, to sense occluded objects. The robot, called RF-Grasp, combines this powerful sensing with more traditional computer vision to locate and grasp items that might otherwise be blocked from view. The advance could one day streamline e-commerce fulfillment in warehouses or help a machine pluck a screwdriver from a jumbled toolkit.

Using optical vision alone, robots can’t perceive the presence of an item packed away in a box or hidden behind another object on the shelf — visible light waves, of course, don’t pass through walls. But radio waves can. For decades, radio frequency (RF) identification has been used to track everything from library books to pets. RF identification systems have two main components: a reader and a tag. The tag is a tiny computer chip that gets attached to — or, in the case of pets, implanted in — the item to be tracked. The reader then emits an RF signal, which gets modulated by the tag and reflected back to the reader.

The reflected signal provides information about the location and identity of the tagged item. The technology has gained popularity in retail supply chains — Japan aims to use RF tracking for nearly all retail purchases in a matter of years. The researchers realized this profusion of RF could be a boon for robots, giving them another mode of perception.

Source: Boroushaki

RF Grasp uses both a camera and an RF reader to find and grab tagged objects, even when they’re fully blocked from the camera’s view. It consists of a robotic arm attached to a grasping hand. The camera sits on the robot’s wrist. The RF reader stands independent of the robot and relays tracking information to the robot’s control algorithm. So, the robot is constantly collecting both RF tracking data and a visual picture of its surroundings. Integrating these two data streams into the robot’s decision making was one of the biggest challenges the researchers faced.

Adapted and abridged from Source (Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “A robot that senses hidden objects: System uses penetrative radio frequency to pinpoint items, even when they’re hidden from view.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 1 April 2021.)

Original paper: Boroushaki, T., Leng, J., Clester, I., Rodriguez, A. and Adib, F., 2020. Robotic Grasping of Fully-Occluded Objects using RF Perception. arXiv preprint arXiv:2012.15436.