Author's School

School of Engineering & Applied Science

Author's Department/Program

Computer Science and Engineering


English (en)

Date of Award

January 2011

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Chair and Committee

William Smart


This dissertation presents algorithms that allow robots to generate optimal behavior from first principles. Instead of hard-coding every desired behavior, we encode the task as a cost function, and use numerical optimization to find action sequences that can accomplish the task. Using the theoretical framework of optimal control, we develop methods for generating autonomous motor behavior in high-dimensional domains of legged locomotion. We identify three foundational problems that limit the application of existing optimal control algorithms, and present guiding principles that address these issues. First, some traditional algorithms use global optimization, where every possible state is considered. This approach cannot be applied in continuous domains, where every additional mechanical degree of freedom exponentially increases the volume of state space. In order to sidestep this curse of dimensionality, we focus on trajectory optimization, which finds locally-optimal solutions while scaling only polynoimally with state dimensionality. Second, many algorithms of optimal control and reinforcement learning cannot be directly applied to continuous domains with contacts, due to the non-smooth dynamics. We present techniques of contact smoothing that enable the use of standard continuous optimization tools. Finally, domains of legged locomotion give rise to extremely non-convex optimization, which is riddled with local minima. This issue is addressed by using a shaping protocol: homotopy-continuation), whereby the solution of an easier variant of the problem is used as initial guess for a harder variant of the problem, gradually finding a solution to the original domain. In dynamic environments, effective behavior requires feedback control, which provides appropriate reaction to changing circumstance. We present tools that generate adaptive autonomous behavior through local optimization, and scale well to domains with over 60 state-space dimensions. We present a series of experiments that demonstrate robust and reactive motor behavior in domains of increasing complexity. First, a multi-joint swimmer which can follow a moving target, withstand violent perturbations, and avoid moving obstacles. Second, a one-legged hopper that can maintain its gait through both perturbations and morphological alteration. And finally, two bipeds: a planar walker, and a 3D runner that uses its arms to balance its gait.



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