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Learning to Manipulate Granular Media with a Robot

Connor Schenck
Dieter Fox
Sergey Levine
CoRL (2017)


In this paper, we examine the problem of robotic manipulation of granular media. We evaluate multiple predictive models used to infer the dynamics of scooping and dumping actions. These models are evaluated on a task that involves manipulating the media in order to deform it into a desired shape. Our best performing model is based on a highly-tailored convolutional network architecture with domain-specific optimizations, which we show accurately models the physical interaction of the robotic scoop with the underlying media. We empirically demonstrate that explicitly predicting physical mechanics results in a policy that out-performs both a hand-crafted dynamics baseline, and a “value-network”, which must otherwise implicitly predict the same mechanics in order to produce accurate value estimates.

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