This tutorial will demonstrate some basic interaction with DART’s dynamics API during simulation. This will show you how to:

  • Create a basic program to simulate a dynamic system
  • Change the colors of shapes
  • Add/remove shapes from visualization
  • Apply internal forces in the joints
  • Apply external forces to the bodies
  • Alter the implicit spring and damping properties of joints
  • Add/remove dynamic constraints

Please reference the source code in tutorialMultiPendulum.cpp and tutorialMultiPendulum-Finished.cpp.

Lesson 0: Simulate a passive multi-pendulum

This is a warmup lesson that demonstrates how to set up a simulation program in DART. The example we will use throughout this tutorial is a pendulum with five rigid bodies swinging under gravity. DART allows the user to build various articulated rigid/soft body systems from scratch. It also loads models in URDF, SDF, and SKEL formats as demonstrated in the later tutorials.

In DART, an articulated dynamics model is represented by a Skeleton. In the main function, we first create an empty skeleton named pendulum.

SkeletonPtr pendulum = Skeleton::create("pendulum");

A Skeleton is a structure that consists of BodyNodes (bodies) which are connected by Joints. Every Joint has a child BodyNode, and every BodyNode has a parent Joint. Even the root BodyNode has a Joint that attaches it to the World. In the function makeRootBody, we create a pair of a BallJoint and a BodyNode, and attach this pair to the currently empty pendulum skeleton.

BodyNodePtr bn = pendulum->createJointAndBodyNodePair<BallJoint>(
      nullptr, properties, BodyNode::AspectProperties(name)).second;

Note that the first parameters is a nullptr, which indicates that this new BodyNode is the root of the pendulum. If we wish to append the new BodyNode to an existing BodyNode in the pendulum, we can do so by passing the pointer of the existing BodyNode as the first parameter. In fact, this is how we add more BodyNodes to the pendulum in the function addBody:

BodyNodePtr bn = pendulum->createJointAndBodyNodePair<RevoluteJoint>(
      parent, properties, BodyNode::AspectProperties(name)).second;

The simplest way to set up a simulation program in DART is to use SimWindow class. A SimWindow owns an instance of World and simulates all the Skeletons in the World. In this example, we create a World with the pendulum skeleton in it, and assign the World to an instance of MyWindow, a subclass derived from SimWindow.

WorldPtr world(new World);
MyWindow window(world);

Every single time step, the MyWindow::timeStepping function will be called and the state of the World will be simulated. The user can override the default timeStepping function to customize the simulation routine. For example, one can incorporate sensors, actuators, or user interaction in the forward simulation.

Lesson 1: Change shapes and applying forces

We have a pendulum with five bodies, and we want to be able to apply forces to them during simulation. Additionally, we want to visualize these forces so we can more easily interpret what is happening in the simulation. For this reason, we’ll discuss visualizing and forces at the same time.

Lesson 1a: Reset everything to default appearance

At each step, we’ll want to make sure that everything starts out with its default appearance. The default is for everything to be blue and there not to be any arrow attached to any body.

Find the function named timeStepping in the MyWindow class. The top of this function is where we will want to reset everything to the default appearance.

Each BodyNode contains visualization Shapes that will be rendered during simulation. In our case, each BodyNode has two shapes:

  • One shape to visualize the parent joint
  • One shape to visualize the body

The default appearance for everything is to be colored blue, so we’ll want to iterate through these two Shapes in each BodyNode, setting their colors to blue.

for(std::size_t i = 0; i < mPendulum->getNumBodyNodes(); ++i)
  BodyNode* bn = mPendulum->getBodyNode(i);
  auto visualShapeNodes = bn->getShapeNodesWith<VisualAspect>();
  for(std::size_t j = 0; j < 2; ++j)

  // TODO: Remove any arrows

Additionally, there is the possibility that some BodyNodes will have an arrow shape attached if the user had been applying an external body force to it. By default, this arrow should not be attached, so in the outer for-loop, we should check for arrows and remove them:

if(bn->getNumVisualizationShapes() == 3)

Now everything will be reset to the default appearance.

Lesson 1b: Apply joint torques based on user input

The MyWindow class in this tutorial has a variable called mForceCountDown which is a std::vector<int> whose entries get set to a value of default_countdown each time the user presses a number key. If an entry in mForceCountDown is greater than zero, then that implies that the user wants a force to be applied for that entry.

There are two ways that forces can be applied:

  • As an internal joint force
  • As an external body force

First we’ll consider applying a Joint force. Inside the for-loop that goes through each DegreeOfFreedom using getNumDofs(), there is an if-statement for mForceCountDown. In that if-statement, we’ll grab the relevant DegreeOfFreedom and set its generalized (joint) force:

DegreeOfFreedom* dof = mPendulum->getDof(i);
dof->setForce( mPositiveSign? default_torque : -default_torque );

The mPositiveSign boolean gets toggled when the user presses the minus sign ‘-‘ key. We use this boolean to decide whether the applied force should be positive or negative.

Now we’ll want to visualize the fact that a Joint force is being applied. We’ll do this by highlighting the joint with the color red. First we’ll grab the Shape that corresponds to this Joint:

BodyNode* bn = dof->getChildBodyNode();
const ShapePtr& shape = bn->getVisualizationShape(0);

Because of the way the pendulum bodies were constructed, we trust that the zeroth indexed visualization shape will be the shape that depicts the joint. So now we will color it red:


Lesson 1c: Apply body forces based on user input

If mBodyForce is true, we’ll want to apply an external force to the body instead of an internal force in the joint. First, inside the for-loop that iterates through each BodyNode using getNumBodyNodes(), there is an if-statement for mForceCountDown. In that if-statement, we’ll grab the relevant BodyNode:

BodyNode* bn = mPendulum->getBodyNode(i);

Now we’ll create an Eigen::Vector3d that describes the force and another one that describes the location for that force. An Eigen::Vector3d is the Eigen C++ library’s version of a three-dimensional mathematical vector. Note that the d at the end of the name stands for double, not for “dimension”. An Eigen::Vector3f would be a three-dimensional vector of floats, and an Eigen::Vector3i would be a three-dimensional vector of integers.

Eigen::Vector3d force = default_force * Eigen::Vector3d::UnitX();
Eigen::Vector3d location(-default_width / 2.0, 0.0, default_height / 2.0);

The force will have a magnitude of default_force and it will point in the positive x-direction. The location of the force will be in the center of the negative x side of the body, as if a finger on the negative side is pushing the body in the positive direction. However, we need to account for sign changes:

  force = -force;
  location[0] = -location[0];

That will flip the signs whenever the user is requesting a negative force.

Now we can add the external force:

bn->addExtForce(force, location, true, true);

The two true booleans at the end are indicating to DART that both the force and the location vectors are being expressed with respect to the body frame.

Now we’ll want to visualize the force being applied to the body. First, we’ll grab the Shape for the body and color it red:

auto visualShapeNodes = bn->getShapeNodesWith<VisualAspect>();

Last time we grabbed the 0-index visualization shape, because we trusted that it was the shape that represented the parent Joint. This time we’re grabbing the 1-index visualization shape, because we trust that it is the shape for the body.

Now we’ll want to add an arrow to the visualization shapes of the body to represent the applied force. The MyWindow class already provides the arrow shape; we just need to add it:


Lesson 2: Set spring and damping properties for joints

DART allows Joints to have implicit spring and damping properties. By default, these properties are zeroed out, so a joint will only exhibit the forces that are given to it by the Joint::setForces function. However, you can give a non-zero spring coefficient to a joint so that it behaves according to Hooke’s Law, and you can give a non-zero damping coefficient to a joint which will result in linear damping. These forces are computed using implicit methods in order to improve numerical stability.

Lesson 2a: Set joint spring rest position

First let’s see how to get and set the rest positions.

Find the function named changeRestPosition in the MyWindow class. This function will be called whenever the user presses the ‘q’ or ‘a’ button. We want those buttons to curl and uncurl the rest positions for the pendulum. To start, we’ll go through all the generalized coordinates and change their rest positions by delta:

for(size_t i = 0; i < mPendulum->getNumDofs(); ++i)
  DegreeOfFreedom* dof = mPendulum->getDof(i);
  double q0 = dof->getRestPosition() + delta;


However, it’s important to note that the system can become somewhat unstable if we allow it to curl up too much, so let’s put a limit on the magnitude of the rest angle. Right before dof->setRestPosition(q0); we can put:

if(std::abs(q0) > 90.0 * M_PI / 180.0)
  q0 = (q0 > 0)? (90.0 * M_PI / 180.0) : -(90.0 * M_PI / 180.0);

And there’s one last thing to consider: the first joint of the pendulum is a BallJoint. BallJoints have three degrees of freedom, which means if we alter the rest positions of all of the pendulum’s degrees of freedom, then the pendulum will end up curling out of the x-z plane. You can allow this to happen if you want, or you can prevent it from happening by zeroing out the rest positions of the BallJoint’s other two degrees of freedom:


Lesson 2b: Set joint spring stiffness

Changing the rest position does not accomplish anything without having any spring stiffness. We can change the spring stiffness as follows:

for(size_t i = 0; i < mPendulum->getNumDofs(); ++i)
  DegreeOfFreedom* dof = mPendulum->getDof(i);
  double stiffness = dof->getSpringStiffness() + delta;

However, it’s important to realize that if the spring stiffness were ever to become negative, we would get some very nasty explosive behavior. It’s also a bad idea to just trust the user to avoid decrementing it into being negative. So before the line dof->setSpringStiffness(stiffness); you’ll want to put:

if(stiffness < 0.0)
  stiffness = 0.0;

Lesson 2c: Set joint damping

Joint damping can be thought of as friction inside the joint actuator. It applies a resistive force to the joint which is proportional to the generalized velocities of the joint. This draws energy out of the system and generally results in more stable behavior.

The API for getting and setting the damping is just like the API for stiffness:

for(size_t i = 0; i < mPendulum->getNumDofs(); ++i)
  DegreeOfFreedom* dof = mPendulum->getDof(i);
  double damping = dof->getDampingCoefficient() + delta;
  if(damping < 0.0)
    damping = 0.0;

Again, we want to make sure that the damping coefficient is never negative. In fact, a negative damping coefficient would be far more harmful than a negative stiffness coefficient.

Lesson 3: Add and remove dynamic constraints

Dynamic constraints in DART allow you to attach two BodyNodes together according to a selection of a few different Joint-style constraints. This allows you to create closed loop constraints, which is not possible using standard Joints. You can also create a dynamic constraint that attaches a BodyNode to the World instead of to another BodyNode.

In our case, we want to attach the last BodyNode to the World with a BallJoint style constraint whenever the function addConstraint() gets called. First, let’s grab the last BodyNode in the pendulum:

BodyNode* tip  = mPendulum->getBodyNode(mPendulum->getNumBodyNodes() - 1);

Now we’ll want to compute the location that the constraint should have. We want to connect the very end of the tip to the world, so the location would be:

Eigen::Vector3d location =
    tip->getTransform() * Eigen::Vector3d(0.0, 0.0, default_height);

Now we can create the BallJointConstraint:

mBallConstraint =
    std::make_shared<dart::constraint::BallJointConstraint>(tip, location);

And then add it to the world:


Now we also want to be able to remove this constraint. In the function removeConstraint(), we can put the following code:

mBallConstraint = nullptr;

Setting mBallConstraint to a nullptr will allow its smart pointer to delete it.

Now you are ready to run the demo!