NVIDIA Unveils New Reinforcement Learning Research at ICRA 2019

This week, NVIDIA researchers from the newly opened robotics research lab  in Seattle, Washington are presenting a new proof of concept reinforcement learning approach that aims to enhance how robots trained in simulation will perform in the real world. The work will be presented at the International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA) in Montreal, Canada.

The research is part of a growing trend in the deep learning and robotics community that relies on simulation for training. Since the method is virtual, there’s no risk of damage or injury, allowing the robot to train for potentially an unlimited number of times, before deploying to the real world.  

One way to describe simulation training is to compare it to how astronauts train on earth for key space missions. They learn to withstand the punishing G-forces that come with space travel, rehearse and practice all aspects of a mission, and how to perform critical operations so they can perform them flawlessly in space. Reinforcement learning in simulation aims to do the same but with robots.


“In robotics, you generally want to train things in simulation because you can cover a wide spectrum of scenarios that are difficult to get data for in the real world,” said Ankur Handa, one of the lead researchers on the project. “The idea behind this work is to train the robot to do something in the simulator that would be tedious, and time-consuming in real life,” he explains.

Handa says that one of the challenges researchers in the reinforcement learning robotics community face is the discrepancy between what is in the real world and simulator.

“Due to the imprecise simulation models and lack of high fidelity replication of real-world scenes, policies learned in simulations often cannot be directly applied on real-world systems, a phenomenon that is also known as the reality gap,” the researchers state in their paper.

“In this work, we focus on closing the reality gap by learning policies on distributions of simulated scenarios that are optimized for a better policy transfer.”

“Rather than manually tuning the randomization of simulations, we adapt the simulation parameter distribution using a few real world roll-outs interleaved with policy training,” Handa said.  “We’re essentially creating a replica of the real world in the simulator.”

Using a cluster of 64 NVIDIA Tesla V100 GPUs, with the cuDNN-accelerated TensorFlow deep learning framework, the researchers trained a robot to perform two tasks: placing a peg in a hole and opening a drawer.

For the simulation, the team used the NVIDIA FleX physics engine to simulate and develop the SimOpt algorithm described in this research work.

For both tasks, the robot learns from over 9600 simulations each over around 1.5-2 hours, allowing it to swing a peg into a hole and open a drawer accurately.

Policy performance in the target drawer opening environment trained on randomized simulation parameters at different iterations of SimOpt. As the source environment distribution gets adjusted, the policy transfer improves until the robot can successfully solve the task in the fourth SimOpt iteration.

“Closing the simulation to reality transfer loop is an important component for a robust transfer of robotic policies,” the researchers stated.  “In this work, we demonstrated that adapting simulation randomization using real world data can help in learning simulation parameter distributions that are particularly suited for a successful policy transfer without the need for exact replication of the real world environment.”

Running policies trained in simulation at different iterations of SimOpt for real world swing-peg-in-hole and drawer opening tasks. Left: SimOpt adjusts physical parameter distribution of the soft rope, peg and the robot, which results in a successful execution of the task on a real robot after two SimOpt iterations. Right: SimOpt adjusts physical parameter distribution of the robot and the drawer. Before updating the parameters, the robot pushes too much on the drawer handle with one of its fingers, which leads to opening the gripper. After one SimOpt iteration, the robot can better control its gripper orientation, which leads to accurate task execution.

Learn more about NVIDIA robotics research here.

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