Robotic deep RL at scale: Sorting waste and recyclables with a fleet of robots

April 13, 2023

Posted by Sergey Levine, Research Scientist, and Alexander Herzog, Staff Research Software Engineer, Google Research, Brain Team

Reinforcement learning (RL) can enable robots to learn complex behaviors through trial-and-error interaction, getting better and better over time. Several of our prior works explored how RL can enable intricate robotic skills, such as robotic grasping, multi-task learning, and even playing table tennis. Although robotic RL has come a long way, we still don't see RL-enabled robots in everyday settings. The real world is complex, diverse, and changes over time, presenting a major challenge for robotic systems. However, we believe that RL should offer us an excellent tool for tackling precisely these challenges: by continually practicing, getting better, and learning on the job, robots should be able to adapt to the world as it changes around them.

In “Deep RL at Scale: Sorting Waste in Office Buildings with a Fleet of Mobile Manipulators”, we discuss how we studied this problem through a recent large-scale experiment, where we deployed a fleet of 23 RL-enabled robots over two years in Google office buildings to sort waste and recycling. Our robotic system combines scalable deep RL from real-world data with bootstrapping from training in simulation and auxiliary object perception inputs to boost generalization, while retaining the benefits of end-to-end training, which we validate with 4,800 evaluation trials across 240 waste station configurations.

Problem setup

When people don’t sort their trash properly, batches of recyclables can become contaminated and compost can be improperly discarded into landfills. In our experiment, a robot roamed around an office building searching for “waste stations” (bins for recyclables, compost, and trash). The robot was tasked with approaching each waste station to sort it, moving items between the bins so that all recyclables (cans, bottles) were placed in the recyclable bin, all the compostable items (cardboard containers, paper cups) were placed in the compost bin, and everything else was placed in the landfill trash bin. Here is what that looks like:

This task is not as easy as it looks. Just being able to pick up the vast variety of objects that people deposit into waste bins presents a major learning challenge. Robots also have to identify the appropriate bin for each object and sort them as quickly and efficiently as possible. In the real world, the robots can encounter a variety of situations with unique objects, like the examples from real office buildings below:

Learning from diverse experience

Learning on the job helps, but before even getting to that point, we need to bootstrap the robots with a basic set of skills. To this end, we use four sources of experience: (1) a set of simple hand-designed policies that have a very low success rate, but serve to provide some initial experience, (2) a simulated training framework that uses sim-to-real transfer to provide some initial bin sorting strategies, (3) “robot classrooms” where the robots continually practice at a set of representative waste stations, and (4) the real deployment setting, where robots practice in real office buildings with real trash.

A diagram of RL at scale. We bootstrap policies from data generated with a script (top-left). We then train a sim-to-real model and generate additional data in simulation (top-right). At each deployment cycle, we add data collected in our classrooms (bottom-right). We further deploy and collect data in office buildings (bottom-left).

Our RL framework is based on QT-Opt, which we previously applied to learn bin grasping in laboratory settings, as well as a range of other skills. In simulation, we bootstrap from simple scripted policies and use RL, with a CycleGAN-based transfer method that uses RetinaGAN to make the simulated images appear more life-like.

From here, it’s off to the classroom. While real-world office buildings can provide the most representative experience, the throughput in terms of data collection is limited — some days there will be a lot of trash to sort, some days not so much. Our robots collect a large portion of their experience in “robot classrooms.” In the classroom shown below, 20 robots practice the waste sorting task:

While these robots are training in the classrooms, other robots are simultaneously learning on the job in 3 office buildings, with 30 waste stations:

Sorting performance

In the end, we gathered 540k trials in the classrooms and 32.5k trials from deployment. Overall system performance improved as more data was collected. We evaluated our final system in the classrooms to allow for controlled comparisons, setting up scenarios based on what the robots saw during deployment. The final system could accurately sort about 84% of the objects on average, with performance increasing steadily as more data was added. In the real world, we logged statistics from three real-world deployments between 2021 and 2022, and found that our system could reduce contamination in the waste bins by between 40% and 50% by weight. Our paper provides further insights on the technical design, ablations studying various design decisions, and more detailed statistics on the experiments.

Conclusion and future work

Our experiments showed that RL-based systems can enable robots to address real-world tasks in real office environments, with a combination of offline and online data enabling robots to adapt to the broad variability of real-world situations. At the same time, learning in more controlled “classroom” environments, both in simulation and in the real world, can provide a powerful bootstrapping mechanism to get the RL “flywheel” spinning to enable this adaptation. There is still a lot left to do: our final RL policies do not succeed every time, and larger and more powerful models will be needed to improve their performance and extend them to a broader range of tasks. Other sources of experience, including from other tasks, other robots, and even Internet videos may serve to further supplement the bootstrapping experience that we obtained from simulation and classrooms. These are exciting problems to tackle in the future. Please see the full paper here, and the supplementary video materials on the project webpage.


This research was conducted by multiple researchers at Robotics at Google and Everyday Robots, with contributions from Alexander Herzog, Kanishka Rao, Karol Hausman, Yao Lu, Paul Wohlhart, Mengyuan Yan, Jessica Lin, Montserrat Gonzalez Arenas, Ted Xiao, Daniel Kappler, Daniel Ho, Jarek Rettinghouse, Yevgen Chebotar, Kuang-Huei Lee, Keerthana Gopalakrishnan, Ryan Julian, Adrian Li, Chuyuan Kelly Fu, Bob Wei, Sangeetha Ramesh, Khem Holden, Kim Kleiven, David Rendleman, Sean Kirmani, Jeff Bingham, Jon Weisz, Ying Xu, Wenlong Lu, Matthew Bennice, Cody Fong, David Do, Jessica Lam, Yunfei Bai, Benjie Holson, Michael Quinlan, Noah Brown, Mrinal Kalakrishnan, Julian Ibarz, Peter Pastor, Sergey Levine and the entire Everyday Robots team.