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Agile Catching with Whole-Body MPC and Blackbox Policy Learning

Saminda Abeyruwan
Nick Boffi
Anish Shankar
Jean-Jacques Slotine
Stephen Tu
Learning for Dynamics and Control (2023)


We address a benchmark task in agile robotics: catching objects thrown at high-speed. This is a challenging task that involves tracking, intercepting, and cradling a thrown object with access only to visual observations of the object and the proprioceptive state of the robot, all within a fraction of a second. We present the relative merits of two fundamentally different solution strategies: (i) Model Predictive Control using accelerated constrained trajectory optimization, and (ii) Reinforcement Learning using zeroth-order optimization. We provide insights into various performance tradeoffs including sample efficiency, sim-to-real transfer, robustness to distribution shifts, and wholebody multimodality via extensive on-hardware experiments. We conclude with proposals on fusing “classical” and “learning-based” techniques for agile robot control. Videos of our experiments may be found here: https://sites.google.com/view/agile-catching.

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