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Amazon Robotics Challenge (2017)

Context

Like in previous years, I was responsible for gripper design. In addition to designing much of it mechanically and electrically, I also served a more managerial role for our electronics UROP (Druck Green), our sensing and mechanical design UROP (Melody Liu) and summer intern (Ian Taylor). Together, we went through a design process much like the previous year while adapting new primitives to our custom-designed storage solution and designing the gripper to match. Our choice to only pick vertically simplifies our primitives list and also gripper design. We also implemented high-flow suction which made the system significantly larger so we added a retraction mechanism to effectively switch between grasping and suction. To make the gripper more reactive to touch, we added a custom-made Gelsight sensor to one of our fingers. Ultimately, the sensor got limited use in competition due to its late integration but it has its own reactive grasping research line here

Content
Conclusions

I learned an important lesson in management style. Because we gained each of the UROPs incrementally over the course of the year, I began the year as the one doing design and implementation and slowly transitioned to more management. There is overhead associated with each person that joins your team both in terms of onboarding and communication. For example, if a task is small enough, I may want to do it myself instead of spending the effort to communicate what needs to be done. Use this approach sparingly though. If you are willing to expend the effort to teach and communicate base skills and expectations, the cost to execute tasks goes down. After a while, our smart MIT students were able to extrapolate and operate more autonomously. “If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself” doesn’t actually hold here. The addendum should be: “If you want something done right, you’ve got to communicate well and put in the work to set teammates up for success”. I know it is an obvious principle, but living it was a visceral experience. 

The most recent iteration of the challenge, the Amazon Robotics Challenge was held in Nagoya, Japan in conjunction with RoboCup. As popularity of the challenge has been growing, the prizes, publicity and competitiveness have scaled as well. In order to step up our game to compete (to win), our team increased in size and I became the lead of our new three-person hardware team. The competition featured previous both tasks and one additional combination task where both are done end-to-end. To further open the solution space, we were required to design our own storage system (with about 1/2 the previous volume) to replace the shelf Amazon supplied in previous years. Our storage system was designed to be entered vertically, just like the target tote. To complicate matters even more, half of the items were given to us only 30 minutes before competing - forcing teams to come up with truly scalable, autonomous solutions. This year we won the stowing task by picking all items in just over half the allotted time. To see our previous work in 2015-2016 click here.

2017
The hardware team