Parallel physics


The complexity of simulated robots, spatial size of environments, and fidelity of sensor simulation all play a role in determining what can be simulated with the constraint of operating at or near real-time. The Gazebo physics update loop is one of the primary consumers of CPU cycles. With an limitation in the speed of solution algorithms to solve the underlying mathematical problem that represents those physical constraints, parallelization of the physics engine is the direction to go in order to help improve performance, with the goal of running complex robots and environments in real-time.

Parallel Strategies

Two strategies to parallelize physics have been implemented: island thread and position error correction thread. For more details about these two strategies results and analysis, please refer to the parallel physics reports on the Gazebo webpage.

Threading is enabled using SDFormat parameters:

  • island_threads: integer number of threads to use for island threading
  • thread_position_correction: flag to turn threading on for ODE quickstep position error correction

Island Thread

The first strategy attempts to parallelize simulation of non-interacting entities. Simulated entities are interacting if they are connected by an articulated joint (such as a revolute or universal joint) or are connected via contact. Groups of interacting entities are clustered into "islands" that are mathematically decoupled from each other. Thus each island can be simulated in parallel. After each step, the clustering of islands is recalculated.

Position Error Correction Thread

The second strategy attempts to speed up the constraint resolution algorithm within islands for the QuickStep solver. The ODE QuickStep solver is the default solver in Gazebo and solves constraints posed as a Linear Complementarity Problem (LCP). As an iterative, fixed time step solver, it is prone to position errors, such as interpenetration of objects.

In order to correct these errors, an impulse is computed that is applied to the interpenetrating objects to push them apart. This method of position correction adds artificial energy into the system. To correct for this additional energy, two equations are solved. An error correcting LCP is used to correct the object position, while the velocity is updated without interpenetration error correction. These two equations can be solved in parallel, due to the independence between each other, two threads can be used simultaneously to do the computation, which comprises the second parallelization strategy.


The following snippet shows how to configure the physics engine with ode with one island thread and no thread position correction.

<physics type="ode" name="unthrottled1">

The following snippet shows how to configure the physics engine with ode with 3 island threads and thread position correction.

<physics type="ode" name="split_unthrottled3">

NOTES - The name assigned to the physics tag will allow us to change the physics engine in runtime with the command gz physics -o <name of the physics tag> ( for example: gz physics -o unthrottled1). - Visit the tutorial Manage physics profiles for more details about Gazebo physics parameters. These parameters affect the performance, accuracy, and general behavior of physics simulation. The physics preset manager interface offers a way to easily switch between a set of physics parameters and save them to SDF.

Running the code

Gazebo is currently instrumented with high-resolution diagnostic timers at several parts of the inner loop. The timer resolution depends on the hardware in use and is approximately 100ns on our test machines. To prevent performance degradation during normal usage, the timers are disabled unless the ENABLE_DIAGNOSTICS symbol is defined during compilation. For each simulation step, the elapsed time is measured and used to compute the following statistics incrementally: mean, minimum, maximum, and variance of each diagnostic timer. The statistics are computed using the math::SignalStats class. This will output the diagnostic timing data to the ~/.gazebo/diagnostics folder.

# clone gazebo9
git clone -b gazebo9
# or clone gazebo 11
git clone -b gazebo11
cd gazebo
mkdir build
cd build
sudo make install

For a detailed version of the install instructions please visit the install tutorial.

Test Scenarios

The effectiveness of the parallelization strategies described in this tutorial depends on the scenario that is being simulated. For example, the threaded islands strategy can parallelize simulation of multiple non-interacting robots, while the position error correction strategy can parallelize simulation of individual robot. The following test scenarios vary the number and complexity of simulated entities to show the performance of each parallelization strategy.

  • The file is used in Gazebo’s automated test system. The world file includes eight instances of the "double pendulum with base" model arrayed in a circle. The model consists of a base in contact with the ground that is connected to two links by revolute joints. The models are arranged in close proximity but do not contact each other. This scenario includes contact, articulation constraints, and multiple islands.

  • The file includes a PR2 robot on a flat ground plane. There are no other objects with which to interact. The PR2 is a complex robot with 48 rigid bodies and 58 articulation joints. This scenario includes contact and articulation constraints but with only one island.

  • The file includes two PR2 robots on a flat ground plane. The robots do not interact with each other. This scenario is similar to, but it includes two islands, so that the effect of each parallelization strategy can be compared with complex robots.

Some results:

For these tests Gazebo is running as fast as possible because we want to track the improvement in the real_time_factor value. You can use some of the scripts described in the section below to run these tests locally. The scripts will subscribe to the topic: /gazebo/default/diagnostics and record the realtimefactor in a csv file.

First we analize the effect of threaded islands for the with 0 threads (control) as well as 1−6 threads. For 1 to 4 threads the performance is increasing, but for 5, 6 and 7 the performance is stuck in the same point which means that there is a point where adding more threads is not going to improve the performance anymore. This value may differ for other worlds. This value depends on the world and models inside it.

When adding the Position Error Correction Thread we can see the increase of performance when there are more than 2 threads. As you can see the real time factor increase by a multiplier of 2 just adding 2 threads. We can add more threads, but again, as shown in the other example, there is a point where adding more threads is not going to help the performance.

You can run locally the other two examples to see the effect of these parameters with one and two PR robots.

Running some experiments

For a quick review of how parallelization works in Gazebo we will run some experiments. For a deeper review of the experiments please refer to the Gazebo parallel physics report.

The following results measure the real time factor, this is a simplification of the tests presented in the Gazebo parallel physics report but if you have installed Gazebo from packages it's another way (less precise) to check the performance of these parameters. You only can access to the dianostics tools if you compile Gazebo from sources with the cmake flag -DENABLE_DIAGNOSTICS as explained above.

To run the experiment:

# to run the revolute joint test
gazebo --verbose -o unthrottled0

# to run a simulation with a pr2
gazebo --verbose -o unthrottled0

# to run a simulation with two pr2
gazebo --verbose -o unthrottled0 dual\

Then you can change the physics running in another terminal:

gz physics -o unthrottled0
# Simulate with island threading:
gz physics -o unthrottled1
# Simulate with island threading:
gz physics -o unthrottled2
# Simulate with threaded position error correction:
gz physics -o split_unthrottled0
# Simulate with both types of threading
gz physics -o split_unthrottled1
gz physics -o split_unthrottled2

Other resources

We provide some scripts to run an experiments to track the real time factor.

Create a new folder:

mkdir /tmp/gazebo_parallel
cd /tmp/gazebo_parallel
bash run_pendulums_test.bash
bash run_pr2_test.bash
Dual PR2
bash run_dual_pr2_test.bash
Visualizing the data

To visualize the data, you need these dependencies in your system: Python and these three dependencies (matplotlib, pandas and numpy).

pip install -U matplotlib pandas numpy

Download the script and visualize the data in the different folders:

python3 revolute_joint_test/
python3 pr2/
python3 dual_pr2/

If you have a look to the results obtained for the pr2. You will see that threaded islands don’t help the single PR2 scenario since the complex PR2 model cannot be partitioned and solved simultaneously over several threads.

Launch the other experiments and try to understand what is happening. Then review the Gazebo parallel physics report to compare your thoughts