Robot Simulation

What Is Robot Simulation?

4 things you need to know

Robot simulation enables robotics engineers and researchers to create virtual models of robots and their environments. This technology enables the testing and validation of robot designs, control algorithms, and interaction with various elements within a simulated, risk-free setting. By using simulation software, the behavior of a robot can be predicted and analyzed under a wide range of conditions without the need for physical prototypes, which can be costly and time-consuming to build.

How Robot Simulation Works

Robot simulation not only saves time and resources but also provides a safe environment to test and improve robotic algorithms and systems before physical systems are built.

Types of Robot Simulation

Robot simulation can be categorized into several types, each serving a specific purpose in the development and testing of robotic systems:

  • Multidomain dynamic simulations incorporate physics, such as forces and torques, to test control systems under real-world conditions for designing robots that interact physically with their environments. Using physics-based, multidomain modeling tools, you can perform multibody dynamic simulation and fine-tune mechanical components, actuators, and control strategies to ensure efficient and effective operation.
  • Kinematic motion simulations visualize robot movement, ensuring paths are collision-free and efficient. They’re crucial for planning and verifying robot trajectories for designing autonomous system applications. Within this simulation, you can model the AI and decision-making capabilities of robots, simulating how they perceive and respond to virtual environments, which is essential for autonomous operation.
  • High-level task simulations assess a robot’s ability to perform complex tasks, aiding in the validation of the robot’s operational effectiveness within specific scenarios. Leveraging the advanced physics and rendering capabilities of game engines, high-level task simulations incorporate sensor and scenario emulations of the inputs and outputs of robots within complex, dynamic environments.
  • Hardware-in-the-loop (HIL) simulations integrate real hardware components, including programmable logic controllers (PLCs), into the simulation, allowing for testing and validation of industrial control systems in real time. HIL simulations facilitate a highly accurate and efficient testing process. This method is crucial for identifying potential issues, optimizing system performance, and ensuring reliability before physical deployment.

Collectively, these simulations form a comprehensive tool for developing, testing, and refining robots, ensuring they are ready for real-world deployment.

System engineering workflow diagram incorporating steps for robot perception, planning, and control across simulation types: multibody dynamic, kinematic, high-level task, and HIL simulation.

Types of robot simulation.

Popular Robot Simulation Software

Simulation holds considerable promise for the verification and validation of robotic systems, offering an automated, cost-efficient, and scalable alternative to the labor-intensive and costly process of field testing. The landscape of robot simulation software is diverse, offering tools tailored to various needs within the robotics community:

  • Gazebo Sim offers physics modeling and a wide range of sensors, making it a go-to for researchers focusing on complex scenarios and outdoor environments.
  • CoppeliaSim is noted for flexible scripting and a set of built-in functions, suitable for simulating both simple and intricate robotic systems.
  • Webots provides a platform for modeling, programming, and simulating mobile robots, popular in education and research for its ease of use and cross-platform support.
  • RoboDK is specifically designed for industrial robot applications, offering an approach to simulate and program robotic arms for manufacturing.
  • MuJoCo is a physics engine designed for the simulation and control of robots, biomechanical systems, and other dynamic objects with complex interactions and contacts.
  • Unity® and Unreal Engine® have expanded from game development to robotics, providing high-fidelity visualizations and physics, which are particularly beneficial for VR and AR applications in robotics.
  • NVIDIA Isaac Sim® is a simulation platform that leverages advanced graphics and AI to enable the development, testing, and training of robotics and AI algorithms in highly realistic virtual environments.
  • MATLAB® and Simulink® are renowned for their computational capabilities that enable detailed modeling and simulation of robotics for algorithm development, testing, and system analysis. They also serve as an integration platform, allowing co-simulation with other simulators, including the tools above.

Each of these simulators serves different aspects of robot simulation, from robot manipulators to marine robots and from academic research to industrial automation and virtual reality integration.

Workflow diagram showing various robot simulators and game engines for co-simulation with MATLAB and Simulink.

Using MATLAB and Simulink to co-simulate with robot simulators and game engines for sensor and scenario simulation.

Why Robot Simulation Is Important

Robot simulations are key in advancing the development and deployment of robotic systems, offering essential benefits for system and environmental modeling. They enable the detailed design and analysis of a robot’s mechanics, electronics, and software in a virtual space, allowing developers to identify design flaws and optimize performance without real-world risks. Simulation includes:

  • System modeling. Used for creating and analyzing the robotic system’s design, simulation facilitates understanding component interactions for system modeling in a virtual environment. This optimizes system performance, ensuring the product functions as intended.
  • Environmental modeling. Simulating the physical world where the robot operates, environmental modeling tests navigation and task execution across various settings. This safe, efficient method tests robots against diverse conditions without real-world testing costs.
  • Virtual commissioning. It validates control strategies and system integration of robotics in a virtual setup, reducing downtime and increasing efficiency when the system goes live.
Virtual commissioning setup showing MATLAB, a Siemens PLC, a Speedgoat Real-Time Target Machine, and Unreal Simulation with Simulink 3D Animation.

Virtual commissioning setup of industrial robots, including PLC machine, real-time target, and visualization.  

Robot simulation is indispensable for refining robots and preparing them for real operational conditions. It ensures safety, reduces costs by minimizing physical prototypes, and accelerates development by allowing quick iterations.

Key Benefits of Robot Simulation

  • Safety and risk reduction: Prevents potential hazards by testing in a virtual environment.
  • Cost efficiency: Saves on materials and trials by using virtual testing.
  • Rapid prototyping and testing: Enables quick evaluation and iteration.
  • Algorithm development and validation: Provides a controlled setting for fine-tuning algorithms.
  • Design optimization: Helps in configuring efficient production layouts in industrial settings.
  • Environmental testing: Assesses robots under varied conditions to confirm operational capabilities.

Robot simulation is increasingly used as robotics technology advances in complexity. It offers a safe, cost-effective, and efficient development method, ensuring robots are well-prepared for deployment.

Features and Challenges of Robot Simulation

Robot simulation is characterized by several key features that enhance its utility and effectiveness in the field of robotics. These features are designed to ensure that simulations are as realistic and useful as possible, covering a broad spectrum from physics-based modeling to photorealistic environments. However, despite these advancements, developers face numerous challenges that can impede the effective use of robot simulation.

Screenshot showing simulation of two robotic arms in an assembly line.

Automating a virtual assembly line with two robotic workcells using the Simulink 3D Animation Unreal Engine Interface.

Key Features of Robot Simulation

  • Physics based. The simulation incorporates physics to ensure realistic robot behavior, mimicking real-world physics interactions.
  • Sensor models. Critical for robot-environment interaction, robot simulation includes the ability to simulate various sensor inputs, enabling developers to test how robots will perceive their surroundings.
  • Photorealism. Advanced simulations offer photorealistic environments, crucial for accurate visual data processing and decision-making algorithms.
  • Connectivity. Simulations can connect with other software tools and systems, enabling comprehensive multisystem integration. This capability is particularly important for seamless integration with the Robot Operating System (ROS).
  • Multidomain simulation. The ability to simulate environments including electrical and mechanical systems enables the simulation of robots in complex conditions.
  • Speed. Efficient design allows for rapid iteration and testing of complex robotic scenarios.
  • User interface (UI). An intuitive UI is crucial for users to easily navigate the simulation software, manage settings, and visualize operations and interactions.

Bin-picking cobot simulation in Unreal Engine.

Challenges in Robot Simulation

While robot simulation offers numerous benefits, developers encounter several challenges that can limit its effectiveness:

  • Scalability and complexity. Scaling simulations for complex systems without performance degradation is challenging.
  • Realism and fidelity. Achieving high realism in simulating physical interactions and robot behaviors requires sophisticated models.
  • Computational requirements. Advanced simulations demand significant computational resources, which can limit speed and accessibility.
  • Sensor noise and uncertainty modeling. Accurately replicating the inherent noise and uncertainty in robot sensors is tough but essential for developing robust perception algorithms.
  • Scenarios and environment creation. Designing diverse, realistic scenarios and environments for testing is time-consuming and often requires specialized knowledge.
  • Integrating with continuous integration. Incorporating simulation into continuous integration pipelines poses difficulties, requiring simulations to be part of development cycles.

Robot simulation is essential for all stages of the development process and the entire product life cycle, from digital prototyping to operations and maintenance. It provides a virtual environment to test and refine systems before they are built and deployed, allowing for the early detection of design flaws and the verification of system performance. Overcoming the challenges mentioned above is crucial to fully leveraging the potential of simulation in robotics development.

Robot Simulation with MATLAB

Simulating robots with MATLAB involves a comprehensive approach centered around Model-Based Design. This design process enables the creation of a digital twin of the robotics system. Through Model-Based Design, MATLAB helps identify potential challenges early on, optimize system functionality, and ensure robots perform as anticipated in real scenarios, thereby streamlining the development trajectory. Here’s a breakdown of how you can simulate robots with MATLAB:

  • Digital twin creation. Begin by modeling your robotics system in MATLAB with Simscape™ and Robotics System Toolbox™ to create a digital twin. This digital representation becomes the core of your simulation, enabling detailed analysis and verification.
  • Multidomain simulation. Use MATLAB and Simscape to simulate various domains within a single environment. This step includes physical modeling and dynamic simulation, enabling you to test different aspects of robot functionality in a unified space.
  • Robot autonomy design. Using Robotics System Toolbox, you can simulate and test the autonomy of your robot, exploring how it responds to various scenarios and environments without the need for physical prototypes.
  • Automated testing. MATLAB supports automated testing within Model-Based Design, enabling you to validate your robot against system requirements efficiently. This approach ensures that every component of your robot meets the necessary standards.
  • Photorealistic simulation. MATLAB and Simulink 3D Animation™, in conjunction with Unreal Engine’s photorealistic simulation capabilities, offer a powerful platform for training AI models within highly realistic and complex virtual environments, enabling the development, testing, and refinement of sophisticated algorithms in scenarios that closely mimic real-world conditions, thereby enhancing the efficacy and reliability of AI systems across diverse applications.
  • Code generation. The digital twin also serves as a foundation for code generation. This capability facilitates early and continuous testing and verification, streamlining the transition from simulation to real-world deployment.
  • Integration and co-simulation. Simulink acts as a powerful integration platform. You can incorporate your in-house code written in C/C++ or Python® and use third-party software and simulators within the Simulink environment. ROS Toolbox™ is particularly useful for co-simulation with various simulators and hardware, enhancing the realism and depth of your robot simulations.

Using MATLAB, you can effectively simulate robots, from their physical dynamics to their autonomous behaviors. This approach not only accelerates the development process but also enhances the reliability and performance of the final robotic system.

Diagram showing MATLAB and Simulink connecting via ROS Toolbox and the ROS network with Gazebo, Unity CARLA, and NVIDIA Isaac Sim.

ROS for MATLAB and Simulink co-simulation with various external simulators.