jonh : robots : position-encoding
This web page is sloppy. A nicer presentation of the same material is available as a Dartmouth Technical Report.

An absolute position-encoding scheme

After working with Serial Killer, Keith Kotay and I decided that I had spent way too much time just trying to help my robot find his place in the world, and that many experiments might be more productive if we could reduce the problem by eliminating positional uncertainty.

Our idea was to somehow print a pattern on the floor of the robots' environment. We were considering printing a pattern on large electrostatic plotters and sticking the sheets to the floor of our lab. Then robots that wanted to navigate the system would have a low-resolution black and white video camera pointed at the floor. From any position in the room, the robot should be able to capture a video frame and compute its position and orientation.

Keith began looking into this problem by trying to generate fields of black and white cells with the property that a given section of the image would be unique with respect to any translation. He wrote a program to generate the field in a brute-force way, by generating new random bits and checking each against every existing bit pattern, but that turned out to be pretty slow. (It may be more feasible with more thoughtful data structures, however.)

a sample pattern Keith described his approach to me around April of 1997, while I was taking an course on image warping. I came up with an alternative plan that required three colors: black and white for the data channel, and grey for a control channel. In the sample system at left, the ternary cells are arranged into 5x5 super-cells. Three of the cells are grey control bits, sixteen are black or white data bits, and six are unused (always white). Eight data bits are used for the x dimension, and eight for y.

initial video capture Here is how a video frame is analyzed to determine the camera's (and hence the robot's) position and orientation. At left is a video snapshot of a printed section of the pattern, taken by Clyde from the Dartmouth Robotics Laboratory.

barrel distortion removed First, artifacts from the capturing process are removed. The black band at the top of the image is cropped, and image is widened to correct the aspect ratio (so that squares in the pattern appear as squares in the image). Barrel distortion is a common artifact of cheap wide-angle lenses, it causes features at the edge of the image to appear smaller than identical features at the center. This distortion is removed, leaving a resulting image (at left) that appears flat. Each pixel value in the image is threshholded to one of the three possible values white, grey, or black. (not shown)

The purple vector at the center of the image is the point and orientation whose absolute (world-space) coordinates the algorithm will determine.

edge detection The image is then run through an edge-detection convolution (filter) that highlights edges of sharp contrast. The edge-detected image is cropped to a circle so that no orientation of line has a disproportionate contribution to the next step.

edge detection A Hough transform maps the points in the edge-detected image into a dual space in which each point represents a line in the original image. The brightest points in the Hough map correspond to the lines in the original image that pass through the most edge-detected points.

The result is a set of equations for lines (rather than just pixels that look like lines to the human eye). These are drawn in over the image at left. The slope of the lines tell us how far we are rotated from one of the four axes (or compass points); the nearest line intersection is used to discover the boundaries between the squares.

image aligned to view axes Both corrections (the rotational correction between 0 and 90 degrees, and the translational correction to put the corner of a square at the origin) are applied to the image, and their effect stored in a matrix so we can later recover the original position of the camera. The image at left is an 80 degree counterclockwise rotation of the previous image.

At this point, we have found a five-by-five set of cells in the image, and we know our position relative to those cells. The centers of each cell is averaged and threshholded to determine the cell's color. The red bars show the parts of the image that are discarded to avoid color slopping in from a neighboring cell.

The control (grey) bits uniquely identify the orientation of the image. In a canonically oriented supercell, Control bits are interleaved with data bits this way:

The lower-left control bit is called the "base."

The control bits are tiled uniformly across the floor pattern, and so we can pretend that the control bits in the image wrap around the edges of the image; that is, we can do pixel math modulo 5. At any orientation, the base control bit is the only one with the property that two control bits appear at base+[3,0]T and base+[0,3]T. This test identifies the lower-left bit in the image above as the control bit, and further indicates that the image is 180 degrees rotated from the canonical orientation. This rotational correction is applied (and stored for later), giving this new 5x5 set of cells:

We know that the upper-right C is the base control bit, and so we are actually looking at the junction of four supercells:

y3 y2 x7 y1 y0
C     x6    x2
y7 y6 x5 y5 y4
      x4    x1
C     x3 C  x0
Now we must explain how the data bits are laid out in a supercell. The x bits occupy two rows of the supercell, and the y bits occupy two columns. The most significant bits of the x value run down the center of a supercell, and the most significant bits of the y value run across the center. The least significant bits run across the top row and down the right column.

y6=0 x5=0 y5=0 y4=1
.... x4=0 .... x1=1
.... x3=1 .C.. x0=1
y2=1 x7=0 y1=0 y0=1
.... x6=0 .... x2=0
In any 5x5 view of the floor pattern, we will be able to see at least nine cells of some supercell. Our image is represented again at left with the names of the data bits in place; the upper-left supercell is the most visible one, so we will take that one to be the position we wish to extract. Because x values run down columns, x7 and x6 that we can see in the neighboring cell below must be the same as those in our target cell that we can't see (because they would appear above x5). Likewise, x2 from the cell below corresponds with x1 and x0. Since both columns of x bits run through our target cell, we can simply concatenate them together into an eight-bit value that gives the x-coordinate of this supercell as 000010112 = 1110.

The y-coordinate is a bit trickier. Again, y7 from the neighboring supercell to the right can still be used, because that supercell has the same y-coordinate. But the least-significant y bits appear in the supercells in the row below. Therefore, we extract y3|y2|y1|y0, add one and bitwise-AND with 0x0f to figure out what the LSB y bits would be in our target cell if we could see them. In this case, y3..y0 for our target cell should be 01012 + 1 mod 1 = 01102. Combined with the most significant bits, we arrive at a y-coordinate of 000101102 = 2210.

Cells in this implementation are 1cm x 1cm, so the supercell at (11,22) is at (55,110) centimeters from the origin. We add (1,-2) centimeters to account for the fact that our view was not centered over the supercell, but over a point 1 cell to the right and 2 cells below center.

During this process, we have composed a single matrix which accounts for all of the transformations made to the image or detected within it:

The resulting SE(2) transformation absolutely describes the robot's position and orientation in the world. Notice that the resolution is indeed finer than one centimeter; as a result of the second translation, it is limited only by the resolution of the camera and the success of the hough transform at correctly detecting lines in the image.


Although the photos above are genuine snapshots of the working system, we never built a whole floor out of this stuff for use in the lab as a substrate for other experiments. However, we thought of some extensions that might be interesting. Those with links are ones that have been completed.

Two-level bits
Another interesting improvement would be to eliminate the grey control cells, encoding their information in the same black and white bits used for data.

Bigger coordinate space
The first obvious extension would be to increase the number of data bits available, perhaps by using the six unused cells, or by increasing the size of a supercell. The current system is limited to a space 256 x 5 = 1280 cm = 12.8 m on a side. Of course, one could use larger cells, but this would increase the amount of free space that must be visible on the "camera side" of the robot in order to capture the requisite 5-cell square. (More accurately, the camera must capture a 5*sqrt(2)-cell-diameter circle.)

Error-check bits
Another use for the left-over cells in a supercell would be to store error-checking bits. A digital error-check would protect against mistakes in the long chain of image transformations.

No camera
It would be nice to reduce the hardware requirements for this system. One approach would be to use a strip of eleven reflective optical sensors spaced 1/2 cell apart, and sample them every 1/2-cell using the robot's shaft encoders to measure local forward motion. The Nyquist limit suggests that this should be enough samples to recover a usuable image. However, we may need more clever tricks to recover rotational information. Perhaps we could record far more samples in the rolling dimension, increasing our resolution enough in that dimension to infer the slopes of lines the robot crosses at an angle.

Spread spectrum
I don't know much about it, but it seems like a way to Imagine that (x,y)-tuples are encoded in rows in one ``image'', and in columns in another. A third and fourth image each encode a strictly-increasing signal along the x and y dimensions, respectively. All four signals also have a ``color'' encoded alongside their data bits. The floor image is the sum of all four channels. (I'm not sure whether this sum can be done in a two-level image, but it would seem so.)

Now, a sufficiently-long line segment of any orientation will read at least one (x,y)-tuple channel, and at least one strictly-increasing signal. The tuple directly communicates the robot's position. The arctangent of the relative ``lengths'' of the two increasing signal channels gives the angle of the line segment's path.

That line-segment could be provided by an input device as simple as a single reflective optical sensor, perhaps using the robots' wheel shaft encoders to more easily normalize the signal.

Less instrusive environment modifications
The previous item dealt with how to reduce the on-robot requirements; here we consider ways to reduce the enviroment requirements; that is, alternatives to printing a pattern to cover the entire floor of the laboratory.