NVIDIA’s new robotics research lab

The Robot Report named NVIDIA a must-watch robotics company in 2019 due to its new Jetson AGX Xavier Module that it hopes will become the go-to brain for next-generation robots. Now there’s even more reason to keep an eye on NVIDIA’s robotics moves: the Santa Clara, Calif.-based chipmaker just opened its first full-blown robotics research lab.

Located in Seattle just a short walk from the University of Washington, NVIDIA’s robotics lab is tasked with driving breakthrough research to enable next-generation collaborative robots that operate robustly and safely among people. NVIDIA’s robotics lab is led by Dieter Fox, senior director of robotics research at NVIDIA and professor in the UW Paul G. Allen School of Computer Science and Engineering.

The 13,000-square-foot lab will be home to 50 roboticists, consisting of 20 NVIDIA researchers plus visiting faculty and interns from around the world. NVIDIA wants robots to be able to naturally perform tasks alongside people in real-world, unstructured environments. To do that, the robots need to be able to understand what a person wants to do and figure out how to help achieve a goal.

The idea for NVIDIA’s robotics lab came in the summer of 2017 in Hawaii. Fox and NVIDIA CEO Jensen Huang met at CVPR, an annual computer vision conference, and discussed the exciting areas and difficult problems ongoing in robotics.

Over 50 research scientists and students from the University of Washington will work in the facility under NVIDIA’s senior director of robotics research Dieter Fox. He explained that the lab will bring “together a collaborative, interdisciplinary team of experts in robot control and perception, computer vision, human-robot interaction and deep learning.”

NVIDIA is hoping that the lab can give rise to the next-generation of robots that can work with humans in open-ended environments not designed specifically for them. In fact, one of its main projects right now is a kitchen helper machine, which is powered by NVIDIA’s Jetson platform and Titan GPUs and can function in an actual kitchen.

Mobile manipulator in the kitchen

The main test area inside NVIDIA’s robotics lab is a kitchen the company purchased from IKEA. A mobile manipulator, consisting of a Franka Emika Panda cobot arm on a Segway RMP 210 UGV, will try its hand at increasingly difficult tasks, ranging from from retrieving objects from cabinets to learning how to clean the dining table to helping a person cook a meal.

Deep Object Pose Estimation

NVIDIA introduced its Deep Object Pose Estimation (DOPE) system in October 2018 and it was on display in Seattle. With NVIDIA’s algorithm and a single image, a robot can infer the 3D pose of an object for the purpose of grasping and manipulation. DOPE was trained solely on synthetic data.

Tactile sensing

NVIDIA had two demos showcasing tactile sensing, which is a missing element for commercialized robotic grippers. One demo featured a ReFlex TakkTile 2 gripper from RightHand Robotics, which recently raised $23 million for its piece-picking technology. The ReFlex TakkTile 2 is a ROS-compatible robotic gripper with three fingers. The gripper has three bending DOF and 1 coupled rotational DOFs. Sensing capabilities include normal pressure sensors, rotational proximal joint encoders, and fingertip IMUs.