Underactuated Robotics

Algorithms for Walking, Running, Swimming, Flying, and Manipulation

Russ Tedrake

© Russ Tedrake, 2020
How to cite these notes   |   Send me your feedback

Note: These are working notes used for a course being taught at MIT. They will be updated throughout the Spring 2020 semester. Lecture videos are available on YouTube.

Previous Chapter Table of contents Next Chapter

Optimization and Mathematical Programming

The view of dynamics and controls taken in these notes builds heavily on tools from optimization -- and our success in practice depends heavily on the effective application of numerical optimization. There are many excellent books on optimization, for example Nocedal06 is an excellent reference on smooth optimization and Boyd04a is an excellent reference on convex optimization (which we use extensively). I will provide more references for the specific optimization formulations below.

The intention of this chapter is, therefore, mainly to provide a launchpad and to address some topics that are particularly relevant in robotics but might be more hidden in the existing general treatments. You can get far very quickly as a consumer of these tools with just a high-level understanding. But, as with many things, sometimes the details matter and it becomes important to understand what is going on under the hood. We can often formulate an optimization problem in multiple ways that might be mathematically equivalent, but perform very differently in practice.

Optimization software

Some of the algorithms from optimization are quite simple to implement yourself; stochastic gradient descent is perhaps the classic example. Even more of them are conceptually fairly simple, but for some of the algorithms, the implementation details matter a great deal -- the difference between an expert implementation and a novice implementation of the numerical recipe, in terms of speed and/or robustness, can be dramatic. These packages often use a wealth of techniques for numerically conditioning the problems, for discarding trivially valid constraints, and for warm-starting optimization between solves. Not all solvers support all types of objectives and constraints, and even if we have two commercial solvers that both claim to solve, e.g. quadratic programs, then they might perform differently on the particular structure/conditioning of your problem. In some cases, we also have nicely designed open-source alternatives to these commercial solvers (often written by academics who are experts in optimization) -- sometimes they compete well with the commercial solvers or even outperform them in particular problem types.

As a result, there are also a handful of software packages that attempt to provide a layer of abstraction between the formulation of a mathematical program and the instantiation of that problem in each of the particular solvers. Famous examples of this include CVX and YALMIP for MATLAB, and JuMP for Julia. 's MathematicalProgram classes provide a middle layer like this for C++ and Python; its creation was motivated initially and specifically by the need to support the optimization formulations we use in this text.

We have a number of tutorials on mathematical programming in , starting with a general introduction here. Drake supports a number of custom, open-source, and commercial solvers (and even some of the commercial solvers are free to academic users).

General concepts

The general formulation is ...

It's important to realize that even though this formulation is incredibly general, it does have it's limits. As just one example, when write optimizations to plan trajectories of a robot, in this formulation we typically have to choose a-priori as particular number of decision variables that will encode the solution. Although we can of course write algorithms that change the number of variables and call the optimizer again, somehow I feel that this "general" formulation fails to capture, for instance, the type of mathematical programming that occurs in sample-based optimization planning -- where the resulting solutions can be described by any finite number of parameters, and the computation flexibly transitions amongst them.

Convex vs nonconvex optimization

Local optima. Convex functions, convex constraints.

If an optimization problem is nonconvex, it does not necessarily mean that the optimization is hard. There are many cases in deep learning where we can reliably solve seemingly very high-dimensional and nonconvex optimization problems. Our understanding of these phenomenon is evolving rapidly, and I suspect anything I write here will shortly become outdated. But the current thinking in supervised learning mostly revolves around the idea that over-parameterization is key -- that many of these success stories are happening in a regime where we actually have more decision variables than we have data, and that the search space is actually dense with solutions that can fit the data perfectly (the so-called "interpolating solutions"), that not all global minima are equally robust, and that the optimization algorithms are performing some form of implicit regularization in order to pick a "good" interpolating solution.

Constrained optimization with Lagrange multipliers

Given the equality-constrained optimization problem $$\minimize_\bz \ell(\bz) \quad \subjto \quad \bphi(\bz) = 0,$$ where $\bphi$ is a vector. Define a vector $\lambda$ of Lagrange multipliers, the same size as $\phi$, and the scalar Lagrangian function, $$L(\bz,{\bf \lambda}) = \ell(\bz) + \lambda^T\phi(\bz).$$ A necessary condition for $\bz^*$ to be an optimal value of the constrained optimization is that the gradients of $L$ vanish with respect to both $\bz$ and $\lambda$: $$\pd{L}{\bz} = 0, \quad \pd{L}{\lambda} = 0.$$ Note that $\pd{L}{\lambda} = \phi(\bz)$, so requiring this to be zero is equivalent to requiring the constraints to be satisfied.

Optimization on the unit circle

Consider the following optimization: $$\min_{x,y} x+y, \quad \subjto \quad x^2 + y^2 = 1.$$ The level sets of $x+y$ are straight lines with slope $-1$, and the constraint requires that the solution lives on the unit circle.

Simply by inspection, we can determine that the optimal solution should be $x=y=-\frac{\sqrt{2}}{2}.$ Let's make sure we can obtain the same result using Lagrange multipliers.

Formulating $$L = x+y+\lambda(x^2+y^2-1),$$ we can take the derivatives and solve \begin{align*} \pd{L}{x} = 1 + 2\lambda x = 0 \quad & \Rightarrow & \lambda = -\frac{1}{2x}, \\ \pd{L}{y} = 1 + 2\lambda y = 1 - \frac{y}{x} = 0 \quad & \Rightarrow & y = x,\\ \pd{L}{\lambda} = x^2+y^2-1 = 2x^2 -1 = 0 \quad & \Rightarrow & x = \pm \frac{1}{\sqrt{2}}. \end{align*} Given the two solutions which satisfy the necessary conditions, the negative solution is clearly the minimizer of the objective.

Convex optimization

Linear Programs/Quadratic Programs/Second-Order Cones

Example: Balancing force control on Atlas

Semidefinite Programming and Linear Matrix Inequalities

Sums-of-squares optimization

It turns out that in the same way that we can use SDP to search over the positive quadratic equations, we can generalize this to search over the positive polynomial equations. To be clear, for quadratic equations we have \[ {\bf P}\succeq 0 \quad \Rightarrow \quad \bx^T {\bf P} \bx \ge 0, \quad \forall \bx. \] It turns out that we can generalize this to \[ {\bf P}\succeq 0 \quad \Rightarrow \quad {\bf m}^T(\bx) {\bf P} {\bf m}(\bx) \ge 0, \quad \forall \bx, \] where ${\bf m}(\bx)$ is a vector of polynomial equations, typically chosen as a vector of monomials (polynomials with only one term). The set of positive polynomials parameterized in this way is exactly the set of polynomials that can be written as a sum of squaresParrilo00. While it is known that not all positive polynomials can be written in this form, much is known about the gap. For our purposes this gap is very small (papers have been written about trying to find polynomials which are uniformly positive but not sums of squares); we should remember that it exists but not worry about it too much for now.

Even better, there is quite a bit that is known about how to choose the terms in ${\bf m}(\bx)$. For example, if you give me the polynomial \[ p(x) = 2 - 4x + 5x^2 \] and ask if it is positive for all real $x$, I can convince you that it is by producing the sums-of-squares factorization \[ p(x) = 1 + (1-2x)^2 + x^2, \] and I know that I can formulate the problem without needing any monomials of degree greater than 1 (the square-root of the degree of $p$) in my monomial vector. In practice, what this means for us is that people have authored optimization front-ends which take a high-level specification with constraints on the positivity of polynomials and they automatically generate the SDP problem for you, without having to think about what terms should appear in ${\bf m}(\bx)$ (c.f. Prajna04). This class of optimization problems is called Sums-of-Squares (SOS) optimization.

As it happens, the particular choice of ${\bf m}(\bx)$ can have a huge impact on the numerics of the resulting semidefinite program (and on your ability to solve it with commercial solvers). implements some particularly novel/advanced algorithms to make this work well Permenter17.

We will write optimizations using sums-of-squares constraints as \[ p(\bx) \sos \] as shorthand for the constraint that $p(\bx) \ge 0$ for all $\bx$, as demonstrated by finding a sums-of-squares decomposition.

This is surprisingly powerful. It allows us to use convex optimization to solve what appear to be very non-convex optimization problems.

Global minimization via SOS

Consider the following famous non-linear function of two variables (called the "six-hump-camel": $$p(x) = 4x^2 + xy - 4y^2 - 2.1x^4 + 4y^4 + \frac{1}{3}x^6.$$ This function has six local minima, two of them being global minima Henrion09a.

By formulating a simple sums-of-squares optimization, we can actually find the minimum value of this function (technically, it is only a lower bound, but in this case and many cases, it is surprisingly tight) by writing: \begin{align*} \max_\lambda \ \ & \lambda \\ \text{s.t. } & p(x) - \lambda \text{ is sos.} \end{align*} Go ahead and play with the code (most of the lines are only for plotting; the actual optimization problem is nice and simple to formulate).


Note that this finds the minimum value, but does not actually produce the $\bx$ value which mimimizes it. This is possible Henrion09a, but it requires examining the dual of the sums-of-squares solutions (which we don't need for the goals of this chapter).

Sums of squares on a Semi-Algebraic Set

The S-procedure.

Sums of squares optimization on an Algebraic Variety

The S-procedure

Using the quotient ring

Quotient rings via sampling


Solution techniques

Interior point (Gurobi, Mosek, Sedumi, ...), First order methods

Nonlinear programming

The generic formulation of a nonlinear optimization problem is \[ \min_z c(z) \quad \subjto \quad \bphi(z) \le 0, \] where $z$ is a vector of decision variables, $c$ is a scalar objective function and $\phi$ is a vector of constraints. Note that, although we write $\phi \le 0$, this formulation captures positivity constraints on the decision variables (simply multiply the constraint by $-1$) and equality constraints (simply list both $\phi\le0$ and $-\phi\le0$) as well.

The picture that you should have in your head is a nonlinear, potentially non-convex objective function defined over (multi-dimensional) $z$, with a subset of possible $z$ values satisfying the constraints.

One-dimensional cartoon of a nonlinear optimization problem. The red dots represent local minima. The blue dot represents the optimal solution.

Note that minima can be the result of the objective function having zero derivative or due to a sloped objective up against a constraint.

Numerical methods for solving these optimization problems require an initial guess, $\hat{z}$, and proceed by trying to move down the objective function to a minima. Common approaches include gradient descent, in which the gradient of the objective function is computed or estimated, or second-order methods such as sequential quadratic programming (SQP) which attempts to make a local quadratic approximation of the objective function and local linear approximations of the constraints and solves a quadratic program on each iteration to jump directly to the minimum of the local approximation.

While not strictly required, these algorithms can often benefit a great deal from having the gradients of the objective and constraints computed explicitly; the alternative is to obtain them from numerical differentiation. Beyond pure speed considerations, I strongly prefer to compute the gradients explicitly because it can help avoid numerical accuracy issues that can creep in with finite difference methods. The desire to calculate these gradients will be a major theme in the discussion below, and we have gone to great lengths to provide explicit gradients of our provided functions and automatic differentiation of user-provided functions in .

When I started out, I was of the opinion that there is nothing difficult about implementing gradient descent or even a second-order method, and I wrote all of the solvers myself. I now realize that I was wrong. The commercial solvers available for nonlinear programming are substantially higher performance than anything I wrote myself, with a number of tricks, subtleties, and parameter choices that can make a huge difference in practice. Some of these solvers can exploit sparsity in the problem (e.g., if the constraints operate in a sparse way on the decision variables). Nowadays, we make heaviest use of SNOPT Gill06, which now comes bundled with the binary distributions of , but also support a large suite of numerical solvers. Note that while I do advocate using these tools, you do not need to use them as a black box. In many cases you can improve the optimization performance by understanding and selecting non-default configuration parameters.

Second-order methods (SQP / Interior-Point)

First-order methods (SGD / ADMM)

Penalty methods

Augmented Lagrangian

Projected Gradient Descent

Zero-order methods (CMA)

My original list: Lagrange multipliers / KKT, Gradient descent, SQP (SNOPT, NLOPT, IPOPT), Global optimization

Example: Inverse Kinematics

Combinatorial optimization

Search, SAT, First order logic, SMT solvers, LP interpretation

Mixed-integer convex optimization

An advanced, but very readable book on MIP Conforti14. Nice survey paper on MILP Vielma15.

"Black-box" optimization

Derivative-free methods. Some allow noisy evaluations.
Polynomial root finding/homotopy, L1 optimization, QCQP, LCP/Variational inequalities, BMI, ..., warm-starting, ...
Previous Chapter Table of contents Next Chapter