Simulation gains traction at Amazon Robotics

Scientists and engineers are developing a new generation of simulation tools accurate enough to develop and test robots virtually.

Building and fine-tuning robotic systems takes lots of time. This is especially true for robots designed to interact within and manipulate an ever-changing array of objects in Amazon facilities. Developing robotic systems in a virtual environment can accelerate this process, but it’s harder than it looks. Engineers have been accelerating new-product design using digital models and virtual simulations for decades. But these existing tools don’t meet Amazon’s need to develop and scale its fleet of complex robots. To understand why, consider video games. Modern video games simulate worlds that look visually realistic at interactive rates.

“Take a race car game, for example. Everything looks physically plausible, but the forces behind the movements aren’t necessarily accurate,” says Andrew Marchese, an Amazon Robotics principal applied scientist who specializes in robotic manipulation. “They approximate some of the torques and forces that push and pull an object in the real world. So, a car’s acceleration may look realistic, even though the car’s engine is not big enough to generate the force needed to jump across the missing section of a bridge. ”Many industrial simulations also rely on approximations. Amazon, for example, uses visual simulators to plan its facilities and approximate how robots will move and interact safely with associates. “Our ambition is to develop robots in simulation first,” Marchese adds. “We want to write software against virtual robots, test it in realistic simulations, verify safety on a real robot, and deploy. And our team is making real progress in doing this.”

Source: Amazon Science