Monthly Archives: June 2015

Operational space control of 6DOF robot arm with spiking cameras part 3: Tracking a target using spiking cameras

Alright. Previously we got our arm all set up to perform operational space control, accepting commands through Python. In this post we’re going to set it up with a set of spiking cameras for eyes, train it to learn the mapping between camera coordinates and end-effector coordinates, and have it track an LED target.

What is a spiking camera?

Good question! Spiking cameras are awesome, and they come from Dr. Jorg Conradt’s lab. Basically what they do is return you information about movement from the environment. They’re event-driven, instead of clock-driven like most hardware, which means that they have no internal clock that’s dictating when they send information (i.e. they’re asynchronous). They send information out as soon as they receive it. Additionally, they only send out information about the part of the image that has changed. This means that they have super fast response times and their output bandwidth is really low. Dr. Terry Stewart of our lab has written a bunch of code that can be used for interfacing with spiking cameras, which can all be found up on his GitHub.

Let’s use his code to see through a spiking camera’s eye. After cloning his repo and running python you can plug in a spiking camera through USB, and with the following code have a Matplotlib figure pop-up with the camera output:

import nstbot
import nstbot.connection
import time

eye = nstbot.RetinaBot()
eye.connect(nstbot.connection.Serial('/dev/ttyUSB0', baud=4000000))



while True:

The important parts here are the creation of an instance of the RetinaBot, connecting it to the proper USB port, and calling the show_image function. Pretty easy, right? Here’s some example output, this is me waving my hand and snapping my fingers:

How cool is that? Now, you may be wondering how or why we’re going to use a spiking camera instead of a regular camera. The main reason that I’m using it here is because it makes tracking targets super easy. We just set up an LED that blinks at say 100Hz, and then we look for that frequency in the spiking camera output by recording the rate of change of each of the pixels and averaging over all pixel locations changing at the target frequency. So, to do this with the above code we simply add


And now we can track the location of an LED blinking at 100Hz! The visualization code place a blue dot at the estimated target location, and this all looks like:
Alright! Easily decoded target location complete.

Transforming between camera coordinates and end-effector coordinates

Now that we have a system that can track a target location, we need to transform that position information into end-effector coordinates for the arm to move to. There are a few ways to go about this. One is by very carefully positioning the camera and measuring the distances between the robot’s origin reference frame and working through the trig etc etc. Another, much less pain-in-the-neck way is to instead record some sample points of the robot end-effector at different positions in both end-effector and camera coordinates, and then use a function approximator to generalize over the rest of space.

We’ll do the latter, because it’s exactly the kind of thing that neurons are great for. We have some weird function, and we want to learn to approximate it. Populations of neurons are awesome function approximators. Think of all the crazy mappings your brain learns. To perform function approximation with neurons we’re going to use the Neural Engineering Framework (NEF). If you’re not familiar with the NEF, the basic idea is to using the response curves of neurons as a big set of basis function to decode some signal in some vector space. So we look at the responses of the neurons in the population as we vary our input signal, and then determine a set of decoders (using least-squares or somesuch) that specify the contribution of each neuron to the different dimensions of the function we want to approximate.

Here’s how this is going to work.

  1. We’re going to attach the LED to the head of the robot,
  2. we specify a set of (x,y,z) coordinates that we send to the robot’s controller,
  3. when the robot moves to each point, record the LED location from the camera as well as the end-effector’s (x,y,z) coordinate,
  4. create a population of neurons that we train up to learn the mapping from camera locations to end-effector (x,y,z) locations
  5. use this information to tell the robot where to move.

A detail that should be mentioned here is that a single camera only provides 2D output. To get a 3D location we’re going to use two separate cameras. One will provide (x,z) information, and the other will provide (y,z) information.

Once we’ve taped (expertly) the LED onto the robot arm, the following script to generate the information we to approximate the function transforming from camera to end-effector space:

import robot
from eye import Eye # this is just a spiking camera wrapper class

import numpy as np
import time

# connect to the spiking cameras
eye0 = Eye(port='/dev/ttyUSB2')
eye1 = Eye(port='/dev/ttyUSB1')
eyes = [eye0, eye1]
# connect to the robot
rob = robot.robotArm()

# define the range of values to test
min_x = -10.0
max_x = 10.0
x_interval = 5.0
min_y = -15.0
max_y = -5.0
y_interval = 5.0
min_z = 10.0
max_z = 20.0
z_interval = 5.0

x_space = np.arange(min_x, max_x, x_interval)
y_space = np.arange(min_y, max_y, y_interval)
z_space = np.arange(min_z, max_z, z_interval)

num_samples = 10 # how many camera samples to average over

    out_file0 = open('eye_map_0.csv', 'w')
    out_file1 = open('eye_map_1.csv', 'w')

    for i, x_val in enumerate(x_space):
        for j, y_val in enumerate(y_space):
            for k, z_val in enumerate(z_space):

                time.sleep(2) # time for the robot to move

                # take a bunch of samples and average the input to get 
                # the approximation of the LED in camera coordinates
                eye_data0 = np.zeros(2)
                for k in range(num_samples):
                    eye_data0 += eye0.position(0)[:2]
                eye_data0 /= num_samples
                out_file0.write('%0.2f, %0.2f, %0.2f, %0.2f\n' %
                                (y_val, z_val, eye_data0[0], eye_data0[1]))

                eye_data1 = np.zeros(2)
                for k in range(num_samples):
                    eye_data1 += eye1.position(0)[:2]
                eye_data1 /= num_samples
                out_file1.write('%0.2f, %0.2f, %0.2f, %0.2f\n' %
                                (x_val, z_val, eye_data1[0], eye_data1[1]))

    import sys
    import traceback
    print traceback.print_exc(file=sys.stdout)

This script connects to the cameras, defines some rectangle in end-effector space to sample, and then works through each of the points writing the data to file. The results of this code can be seen in the animation posted in part 2 of this series.

OK! So now we have all the information we need to train up our neural population. It’s worth noting that we’re only using 36 sample points to train up our neurons, I did this mostly because I didn’t want to wait around. You can of course use more, though, and the more sample points you have the more accurate your function approximation will be.

Implementing a controller using Nengo

The neural simulation software (which implements the NEF) that we’re going to be using to generate and train our neural population is called Nengo. It’s free to use for non-commercial use, and I highly recommend checking out the introduction and tutorials if you have any interest in neural modeling.

What we need to do now is generate two neural populations, one for each camera, that will receives input from the spiking camera and transform the target’s location information into end-effector coordinates. We will then combine the estimates from the two populations, and send that information out to the robot to tell it where to move. I’ll paste the code in here, and then we’ll step through it below.

from eye import Eye
import nengo
from nengo.utils.connection import target_function
import robot 

import numpy as np
import sys
import traceback

# connect to robot
rob = robot.robotArm()

model = nengo.Network()

    def eyeNet(port='/dev/ttyUSB0', filename='eye_map.csv', n_neurons=1000, 

        # connect to eye
        spiking_cam = Eye(port=port)

        # read in eval points and target output
        eval_points = []
        targets = []

        file_obj = open(filename, 'r')
        file_data = file_obj.readlines()
        for line in file_data:
            line_data = map(float, line.strip().split(','))

        eval_points = np.array(eval_points)
        targets = np.array(targets)

        # create subnetwork for eye
        net = nengo.Network(label=label)
        with net:
            def eye_input(t): 
                return spiking_cam.position(0)[:2]
            net.input = nengo.Node(output=eye_input, size_out=2)
            net.map_ens = nengo.Ensemble(n_neurons, dimensions=2)
            net.output = nengo.Node(size_in=2)

            nengo.Connection(net.input, net.map_ens, synapse=None)
            nengo.Connection(net.map_ens, net.output, synapse=None,
                                    **target_function(eval_points, targets))

        return net

    with model: 
        # create network for spiking camera 0
        eye0 = eyeNet(port='/dev/ttyUSB2', filename='eye_map_0.csv', label='eye0')
        # create network for spiking camera 1 
        eye1 = eyeNet(port='/dev/ttyUSB1', filename='eye_map_1.csv', label='eye1')

        def eyes_func(t, yzxz):
            x = yzxz[2] # x coordinate coded from eye1
            y = yzxz[0] # y coordinate coded from eye0
            z = (yzxz[1] + yzxz[3]) / 2.0 # z coordinate average from eye0 and eye1
            return [x,y,z]
        eyes = nengo.Node(output=eyes_func, size_in=4)
        nengo.Connection(eye0.output, eyes[:2])
        nengo.Connection(eye1.output, eyes[2:])

        # create output node for sending instructions to arm
        def arm_func(t, x):
            if t < .05: return # don't move arm during startup (avoid transients)
            rob.move_to_xyz(np.array(x, dtype='float32'))
        armNode = nengo.Node(output=arm_func, size_in=3, size_out=0)
        nengo.Connection(eyes, armNode)

    sim = nengo.Simulator(model), progress_bar=False)

    print traceback.print_exc(file=sys.stdout)
    print 'disconnecting'

The first thing we’re doing is defining a function (eyeNet) to create our neural population that takes input from a spiking camera, and decodes out an end-effector location. In here, we read in from the file the information we just recorded about the camera positions that will serve as the input signal to the neurons (eval_points) and the corresponding set of function output (targets). We create a Nengo network, net, and then a couple of nodes for connecting the input (net.input) and projecting the output (net.output). The population of neurons that we’ll use to approximate our function is called net.map_ens. To specify the function we want to approximate using the eval_points and targets arrays, we create a connection from net.map_ens to net.output and use **target_function(eval_points, targets). So this is probably a little weird to parse if you haven’t used Nengo before, but hopefully it’s clear enough that you can get the gist of what’s going on.

In the main part of the code, we create another Nengo network. We call this one model because that’s convention for the top-level network in Nengo. We then create two networks using the eyeNet function to hook up to the two cameras. At this point we create a node called eyes, and the role of this node is simply to amalgamate the information from the two cameras from (x,z) and (y,z) into (x,y,z). This node is then hooked up to another node called armNode, and all armNode does is call the robot arm’s move_to_xyz function, which we defined in the last post.

Finally, we create a Simulation from model, which compiles the neural network we just specified above, and we run the simulation. The result of all of this then looks something like the following:


And there we go! Project complete! We have a controller for a 6DOF arm that uses spiking cameras to train up a neural population and track an LED, that requires almost no set up time. I gave a demo of this at the end of the summer school and there’s no real positioning of the cameras relative to the arm required, just have to tape the cameras up somewhere, run the training script, and go!

Future work

From here there are a bunch of fun ways to go about extending this. We could add another LED blinking at a different frequency that the arm needs to avoid, using an obstacle avoidance algorithm like the one in this post, add in another dimension of the task involving the gripper, implement a null-space controller to keep the arm near resting joint angles as it tracks the target, and on and on!

Another thing that I’ve looked at is including learning on the system to fine tune our function approximation online. As is, the controller is able to extrapolate and move the arm to target locations that are outside of the range of space sampled during training, but it’s not super accurate. It would be much better to be constantly refining the estimate using learning. I was able to implement a basic version that works, but getting the learning and the tracking running at the same time turns out to be a bit trickier, so I haven’t had the chance to get it all running yet. Hopefully there will be some more down-time in the near future, however, and be able to finish implementing it.

For now, though, we still have a pretty neat target tracker for our robot arm!

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Operational space control of 6DOF robot arm with spiking cameras part 2: Deriving the Jacobian

In the previous exciting post in this series I outlined the project, which is in the title, and we worked through getting access to the arm through Python. The next step was deriving the Jacobian, and that’s what we’re going to be talking about in this post!

This was a time I was very glad to have a previous post talking about generating transformation matrices, because deriving the Jacobian for a 6DOF arm in 3D space comes off as a little daunting when you’re used to 3DOF in 2D space, and I needed a reminder of the derivation process. The first step here was finding out which motors were what, so I went through and found out how each motor moved with something like the following code:

for ii in range(7):
    target_angles = np.zeros(7, dtype='float32')
    target_angles[ii] = np.pi / 4.0

and I found that the robot is setup in the figures below

this is me trying my hand at making things clearer using Inkscape, hopefully it’s worked. Displayed are the first 6 joints and their angles of rotation, q_0 through q_5. The 7th joint, q_6, opens and closes the gripper, so we’re safe to ignore it in deriving our Jacobian. The arm segment lengths l_1, l_3, and l_5 are named based on the nearest joint angles (makes easier reading in the Jacobian derivation).

Find the transformation matrix from end-effector to origin

So first thing’s first, let’s find the transformation matrices. Our first joint, q_0, rotates around the z axis, so the rotational part of our transformation matrix ^\textrm{orgin}\textbf{T}_0 is

^\textrm{orgin}\textbf{R}_0 = \left[ \begin{array}{ccc} \textrm{cos}(q_0) & -\textrm{sin}(q_0) & 0 \\ \textrm{sin}(q_0) & \textrm{cos}(q_0) & 0 \\ 0 & 0 & 1 \end{array} \right],

and q_0 and our origin frame of reference are on top of each other so we don’t need to account for translation, so our translation component of ^\textrm{origin}\textbf{T}_0 is

^\textrm{orgin}\textbf{D}_0 = \left[ \begin{array}{c} 0 \\ 0 \\ 0 \end{array} \right].

Stacking these together to form our first transformation matrix we have

^\textrm{orgin}\textbf{T}_0 = \left[ \begin{array}{cc} ^\textrm{origin}\textbf{R}_0 & ^\textrm{origin}\textbf{D}_0 \\ 0 & 1 \end{array} \right] = \left[ \begin{array}{cccc} \textrm{cos}(q_0) & -\textrm{sin}(q_0) & 0 & 0\\ \textrm{sin}(q_0) & \textrm{cos}(q_0) & 0 & 0 \\ 0 & 0 & 1 & 0 \\ 0 & 0 & 0 & 1 \end{array} \right] .

So now we are able to convert a position in 3D space from to the reference frame of joint q_0 back to our origin frame of reference. Let’s keep going.

Joint q_1 rotates around the x axis, and there is a translation along the arm segment l_1. Our transformation matrix looks like

^0\textbf{T}_1 = \left[ \begin{array}{cccc} 1 & 0 & 0 & 0 \\ 0 & \textrm{cos}(q_1) & -\textrm{sin}(q_1) & l_1 \textrm{cos}(q_1) \\ 0 & \textrm{sin}(q_1) & \textrm{cos}(q_1) & l_1 \textrm{sin}(q_1) \\ 0 & 0 & 0 & 1 \end{array} \right] .

Joint q_2 also rotates around the x axis, but there is no translation from q_2 to q_3. So our transformation matrix looks like

^1\textbf{T}_2 = \left[ \begin{array}{cccc} 1 & 0 & 0 & 0 \\ 0 & \textrm{cos}(q_2) & -\textrm{sin}(q_2) & 0 \\ 0 & \textrm{sin}(q_2) & \textrm{cos}(q_2) & 0 \\ 0 & 0 & 0 & 1 \end{array} \right] .

The next transformation matrix is a little tricky, because you might be tempted to say that it’s rotating around the z axis, but actually it’s rotating around the y axis. This is determined by where q_3 is mounted relative to q_2. If it was mounted at 90 degrees from q_2 then it would be rotating around the z axis, but it’s not. For translation, there’s a translation along the y axis up to the next joint, so all in all the transformation matrix looks like:

^2\textbf{T}_3 = \left[ \begin{array}{cccc} \textrm{cos}(q_3) & 0 & -\textrm{sin}(q_3) & 0\\ 0 & 1 & 0 & l_3 \\ \textrm{sin}(q_3) & 0 & \textrm{cos}(q_3) & 0\\ 0 & 0 & 0 & 1 \end{array} \right] .

And then the transformation matrices for coming from q_4 to q_3 and q_5 to q_4 are the same as the previous set, so we have

^3\textbf{T}_4 = \left[ \begin{array}{cccc} 1 & 0 & 0 & 0 \\ 0 & \textrm{cos}(q_4) & -\textrm{sin}(q_4) & 0 \\ 0 & \textrm{sin}(q_4) & \textrm{cos}(q_4) & 0 \\ 0 & 0 & 0 & 1 \end{array} \right] .


^4\textbf{T}_5 = \left[ \begin{array}{cccc} \textrm{cos}(q_5) & 0 & -\textrm{sin}(q_5) & 0 \\ 0 & 1 & 0 & l_5 \\ \textrm{sin}(q_5) & 0 & \textrm{cos}(q_5) & 0\\ 0 & 0 & 0 & 1 \end{array} \right] .

Alright! Now that we have all of the transformation matrices, we can put them together to get the transformation from end-effector coordinates to our reference frame coordinates!

^\textrm{origin}\textbf{T}_\textrm{ee} = ^\textrm{origin}\textbf{T}_0 \; ^0\textbf{T}_1 \; ^1\textbf{T}_2 \; ^2\textbf{T}_3 \; ^3\textbf{T}_4 \; ^4\textbf{T}_5.

At this point I went and tested this with some sample points to make sure that everything seemed to be being transformed properly, but we won’t go through that here.

Calculate the derivative of the transform with respect to each joint

The next step in calculating the Jacobian is getting the derivative of ^\textrm{origin}T_\textrm{ee}. This could be a big ol’ headache to do it by hand, OR we could use SymPy, the symbolic computation package for Python. Which is exactly what we’ll do. So after a quick

sudo pip install sympy

I wrote up the following script to perform the derivation for us

import sympy as sp

def calc_transform():
    # set up our joint angle symbols (6th angle doesn't affect any kinematics)
    q = [sp.Symbol('q0'), sp.Symbol('q1'), sp.Symbol('q2'), sp.Symbol('q3'),
            sp.Symbol('q4'), sp.Symbol('q5')]
    # set up our arm segment length symbols
    l1 = sp.Symbol('l1')
    l3 = sp.Symbol('l3')
    l5 = sp.Symbol('l5')

    Torg0 = sp.Matrix([[sp.cos(q[0]), -sp.sin(q[0]), 0, 0,],
                       [sp.sin(q[0]), sp.cos(q[0]), 0, 0],
                       [0, 0, 1, 0],
                       [0, 0, 0, 1]])

    T01 = sp.Matrix([[1, 0, 0, 0],
                     [0, sp.cos(q[1]), -sp.sin(q[1]), l1*sp.cos(q[1])],
                     [0, sp.sin(q[1]), sp.cos(q[1]), l1*sp.sin(q[1])],
                     [0, 0, 0, 1]])

    T12 = sp.Matrix([[1, 0, 0, 0],
                     [0, sp.cos(q[2]), -sp.sin(q[2]), 0],
                     [0, sp.sin(q[2]), sp.cos(q[2]), 0],
                     [0, 0, 0, 1]])

    T23 = sp.Matrix([[sp.cos(q[3]), 0, sp.sin(q[3]), 0],
                     [0, 1, 0, l3],
                     [-sp.sin(q[3]), 0, sp.cos(q[3]), 0],
                     [0, 0, 0, 1]])

    T34 = sp.Matrix([[1, 0, 0, 0],
                     [0, sp.cos(q[4]), -sp.sin(q[4]), 0],
                     [0, sp.sin(q[4]), sp.cos(q[4]), 0],
                     [0, 0, 0, 1]])

    T45 = sp.Matrix([[sp.cos(q[5]), 0, sp.sin(q[5]), 0],
                     [0, 1, 0, l5],
                     [-sp.sin(q[5]), 0, sp.cos(q[5]), 0],
                     [0, 0, 0, 1]])

    T = Torg0 * T01 * T12 * T23 * T34 * T45

    # position of the end-effector relative to joint axes 6 (right at the origin)
    x = sp.Matrix([0,0,0,1])

    Tx = T * x

    for ii in range(6):
        print q[ii]
        print sp.simplify(Tx[0].diff(q[ii]))
        print sp.simplify(Tx[1].diff(q[ii]))
        print sp.simplify(Tx[2].diff(q[ii]))

And then consolidated the output using some variable shorthand to write a function that accepts in joint angles and generates the Jacobian:

def calc_jacobian(q):
    J = np.zeros((3, 7))

    c0 = np.cos(q[0])
    s0 = np.sin(q[0])
    c1 = np.cos(q[1])
    s1 = np.sin(q[1])
    c3 = np.cos(q[3])
    s3 = np.sin(q[3])
    c4 = np.cos(q[4])
    s4 = np.sin(q[4])

    c12 = np.cos(q[1] + q[2])
    s12 = np.sin(q[1] + q[2])

    l1 = self.l1
    l3 = self.l3
    l5 = self.l5

    J[0,0] = -l1*c0*c1 - l3*c0*c12 - l5*((s0*s3 - s12*c0*c3)*s4 + c0*c4*c12)
    J[1,0] = -l1*s0*c1 - l3*s0*c12 + l5*((s0*s12*c3 + s3*c0)*s4 - s0*c4*c12)
    J[2,0] = 0

    J[0,1] = (l1*s1 + l3*s12 + l5*(s4*c3*c12 + s12*c4))*s0
    J[1,1] = -(l1*s1 + l3*s12 + l5*s4*c3*c12 + l5*s12*c4)*c0
    J[2,1] = l1*c1 + l3*c12 - l5*(s4*s12*c3 - c4*c12)

    J[0,2] = (l3*s12 + l5*(s4*c3*c12 + s12*c4))*s0
    J[1,2] = -(l3*s12 + l5*s4*c3*c12 + l5*s12*c4)*c0
    J[2,2] = l3*c12 - l5*(s4*s12*c3 - c4*c12)

    J[0,3] = -l5*(s0*s3*s12 - c0*c3)*s4
    J[1,3] = l5*(s0*c3 + s3*s12*c0)*s4
    J[2,3] = -l5*s3*s4*c12

    J[0,4] = l5*((s0*s12*c3 + s3*c0)*c4 + s0*s4*c12)
    J[1,4] = l5*((s0*s3 - s12*c0*c3)*c4 - s4*c0*c12)
    J[2,4] = -l5*(s4*s12 - c3*c4*c12)

    return J

Alright! Now we have our Jacobian! Really the only time consuming part here was calculating our end-effector to origin transformation matrix, generating the Jacobian was super easy using SymPy once we had that.

Hack position control using the Jacobian

Great! So now that we have our Jacobian we’ll be able to translate forces that we want to apply to the end-effector into joint torques that we want to apply to the arm motors. Since we can’t control applied force to the motors though, and have to pass in desired angle positions, we’re going to do a hack approximation. Let’s first transform our forces from end-effector space into a set of joint angle torques:

\textbf{u} = \textbf{J}^T \; \textbf{u}_\textbf{x}.

To approximate the control then we’re simply going to take the current set of joint angles (which we know because it’s whatever angles we last told the system to move to) and add a scaled down version of \textbf{u} to approximate applying torque that affects acceleration and then velocity.

\textbf{q}_\textrm{des} = \textbf{q} + \alpha \; \textbf{u},

where \alpha is the gain term, I used .001 here because it was nice and slow, so no crazy commands that could break the servos would be sent out before I could react and hit the cancel button.

What we want to do then to implement operational space control here then is find the current (x,y,z) position of the end-effector, calculate the difference between it and the target end-effector position, use that to generate the end-effector control signal u_x, get the Jacobian for the current state of the arm using the function above, find the set of joint torques to apply, approximate this control by generating a set of target joint angles to move to, and then repeat this whole loop until we’re within some threshold of the target position. Whew.

So, a lot of steps, but pretty straight forward to implement. The method I wrote to do it looks something like:

def move_to_xyz(self, xyz_d):
    np.array xyz_d: 3D target (x_d, y_d, z_d)
    count = 0
    while (1):
        count += 1
        # get control signal in 3D space
        xyz = self.calc_xyz()
        delta_xyz = xyz_d - xyz
        ux = * delta_xyz

        # transform to joint space
        J = self.calc_jacobian()
        u =, ux)

        # target joint angles are current + uq (scaled)
        self.q[...] += u * .001
        self.robot.move(np.asarray(self.q.copy(), 'float32'))

        if np.sqrt(np.sum(delta_xyz**2)) < .1 or count > 1e4:

And that is it! We have successfully hacked together a system that can perform operational space control of a 6DOF robot arm. Here is a very choppy video of it moving around to some target points in a grid on a cube.
So, granted I had to drop a lot of frames from the video to bring it’s size down to something close to reasonable, but still you can see that it moves to target locations super fast!

Alright this is sweet, but we’re not done yet. We don’t want to have to tell the arm where to move ourselves. Instead we’d like the robot to perform target tracking for some target LED we’re moving around, because that’s way more fun and interactive. To do this, we’re going to use spiking cameras! So stay tuned, we’ll talk about what the hell spiking cameras are and how to use them for a super quick-to-setup and foolproof target tracking system in the next exciting post!

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Operational space control of 6DOF robot arm with spiking cameras part 1: Getting access to the arm through Python

From June 9th to the 19th we ran a summer school (brain camp) in our lab with people from all over to come and learn how to use our neural modeling software, Nengo, and then work on a project with others in the school and people from the lab. We had a bunch of fun hardware available, from neuromorphic hardware from the SpiNNaker group over at Cambridge to lego robots on omni-wheels to spiking cameras (i’ll discuss what a spiking camera is exactly in part 3 of this series) and little robot arms. There were a bunch of awesome projects, people built neural models capable of performing a simplified version of the Wisconsin card sorting task that they then got running on the SpiNNaker boards, a neural controller built to move a robot leech, a spiking neurons reinforcement-learning system implemented on SpiNNaker with spiking cameras to control the lego robot that learned to move towards green LEDs and avoid red LEDs, and a bunch of others. If you’re interested in participating in these kinds of projects and learning more about this I highly suggest you apply to the summer school for next year!

I took the summer school as a chance to break from other projects and hack together a project. The idea was to take the robot arm, implement an operational space controller (i.e. find the Jacobian), and then used spiking cameras to track an LED and have the robot arm learn how to move to the target, no matter where the cameras were placed, by learning the relationship between where the target is in camera-centric coordinates and arm-centric coordinates. This broke down into several steps: 1) Get access to the arm through Python, 2) derive the Jacobian to implement operational space control, 3) sample state space to get an approximation of the camera-centric to arm-centric function, 4) implement the control system to track the target LED.

Here’s a picture of the set-up during step 3, training.
So in the center is the 6DOF robot arm with a little LED attached to the head, and highlighted in orange circles are the two spiking cameras, expertly taped to the wall with office-grade scotch tape. You can also see the SpiNNaker board in the top left as a bonus, but I didn’t have enough time to involve it in this project.

I was originally going to write this all up as one post, because the first two parts are re-implementing previous posts, but even skimming through those steps it was getting long and I’m sure no one minds having a few different examples to look through for generating Cython code or deriving a Jacobian. So I’m going to break this into a few parts. Here in this post we’ll work through the first step (Cython) of our journey.

Get access to the arm through Python

The arm we had was the VE026A Denso training robot, on loan from Dr. Bryan Tripp of the neuromorphic robotics lab at UW. Previously an interface had been built up by one of Dr. Tripp’s summer students, written in C. C is great and all but Python is much easier to work with, and the rest of the software I wanted to work you know what I’m done justifying it Python is just great so Python is what I wanted to use. The end.

So to get access to the arm in Python I used the great ol’ C++ wrapper hack described in a previous post. Looking at Murphy-the-summer-student’s C code there were basically three functions I needed access to:

// initialize threads, connect to robot
void start_robot(int *semid, int32_t *ctrlid, int32_t *robotid, float **angles)
// send a set of joint angles to the robot servos
void Robot_Execute_slvMove(int32_t robotid, float j1, float j2, float j3, float j4, float j5, float j6, float j7, float j8)
// kill threads, disconnect from robot
void stop_robot(int semid, int32_t ctrlid, int32_t robotid)

So I changed the extension of the file to ‘.cpp’ (I know, I know, I said this was a hack!), fixed some compiler errors that popped up, and then appended the following to the end of the file:

/* A class to contain all the information that needs to
be passed around between these functions, and can
encapsulate it and hide it from the Python interface.

Written by Travis DeWolf (June, 2015)

class Robot {
/* Very simple class, just stores the variables
* needed for talking to the robot, and a gives access
* to the functions for moving it around */

int semid;
int32_t ctrlid;
int32_t robotid;
float* angles;

void connect();
void move(float* angles_d);
void disconnect();

Robot::Robot() { }

Robot::~Robot() { free(angles); }

/* Connect to the robot, get the ids and current joint angles */
/* char* usb_port: the name of the port the robot is connected to */
void Robot::connect()
start_robot(&amp;semid, &amp;ctrlid, &amp;robotid, &amp;angles);
printf("%i %i %i", robotid, ctrlid, semid);

/* Move the robot to the specified angles */
/* float* angles: the target joint angles */
void Robot::move(float* angles)
// convert from radians to degrees
angles[0] * 180.0 / 3.14,
angles[1] * 180.0 / 3.14,
angles[2] * 180.0 / 3.14,
angles[3] * 180.0 / 3.14,
angles[4] * 180.0 / 3.14,
angles[5] * 180.0 / 3.14,
angles[6] * 180.0 / 3.14,
angles[7] * 180.0 / 3.14);

/* Disconnect from the robot */
void Robot::disconnect()
stop_robot(semid, ctrlid, robotid);

int main()
Robot robot = Robot();
// connect to robot

// move robot to some random target angles
float target_angles[7] = {0, np.pi / 2.0, 0.0, 0, 0, 0, 0};


// disconnect

return 0;

So very simple class. Basically just wanted to create a set of functions to hide some of the unnecessary parameters from Python, do the conversion from radians to degrees (who works in degrees? honestly), and have a short little main function to test the creation of the class, and connection, movement, and disconnection of the robot. Like I said, there were a few compiler errors when switching from C to C++, but really that was the only thing that took any time on this part. A few casts and everything was gravy.

The next part was writing the Cython pyRobot.pyx file (I describe the steps involved in this in more detail in this post):

import numpy as np
cimport numpy as np

cdef extern from "bcap.cpp":
cdef cppclass Robot:
void connect()
void move(float* angles)
void disconnect()

cdef class pyRobot:
cdef Robot* thisptr

def __cinit__(self):
self.thisptr = new Robot()

def __dealloc__(self):
del self.thisptr

def connect(self):
Set up the connection to the robot, pass in a vector,
get back the current joint angles of the arm.
param np.ndarray angles: a vector to store current joint angles

def move(self, np.ndarray[float, mode="c"] angles):
Step the simulation forward one timestep. Pass in target angles,
get back the current arm joint angles.
param np.ndarray angles: 7D target angle vector

def disconnect(self):
Disconnect from the robot.

the file:

from distutils.core import setup
from distutils.extension import Extension
from Cython.Distutils import build_ext

name = 'Demos',
cmdclass = {'build_ext': build_ext},


and then compiling!

run build_ext -i

With all of this working, a nice file was created, and it was now possible to connect to the robot in Python with

import test
rob = test.pyRobot()
target_angles = np.array([0, np.pi/2, 0, np.pi/4, 0, 0, 0, 0], dtype='float32')
import time

In the above code we’re instantiating the pyRobot class, connecting to the robot, defining a set of target angles and telling the robot to move there, waiting for 1 second to give the robot time to actually move, and then disconnecting from the robot. Upon connection we have to pass in a set of joint angles for the servos, and so you see the robot arm jerk into position, and then move to the target set of joint angles, it looks something exactly like this:


Neat, phase 1 complete.

At the end of phase 1 we are able to connect to the robot arm through Python and send commands in terms of joint angles. But we don’t want to send commands in terms of joint angles, we want to just specify the end-effector position and have the robot work out the angles! I’ve implemented an inverse kinematics solver using constrained optimization before for a 3-link planar arm, but we’re not going to go that route. Find out what we’ll do by joining us next time! or by remembering what I said we’d do at the beginning of this post.

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