Models in Drake


This document discusses how physical objects (i.e., robots and other objects such as furniture) are represented in Drake.

The representations of physical objects are modeled in Drake declaratively using either URDF (Unified Robot Description Format) or SDF (Simulation Description Format), which are both XML formats.

The target audience for this document is for those who want to model a physical object for use in Drake. You should have some understanding of XML formats, and be able to run Drake. You don’t need to know C++. This document provides enough reference material for someone to edit or create a representation of a simple object and its environment, by defining the terminology and providing an overview of what’s in a model file. This document is not meant as a tutorial for creating URDF/SDF files, which you can find elsewhere. For deeper understanding of polygonal modeling and advanced topics like meshes and textures, we try to provide links to further information, but you may have to do more of your own research and education.

In this document, we call the URDF or SDF representation of the object a model. The model of an object will describe the object’s physical properties, including visual, contact, and dynamic properties. Visual properties describe the appearance of an object, such as its shape and texture. Dynamic properties describe how the object moves and have parameters like mass and spatial inertia. Contact properties describe how an object behaves when in contact with other objects and include numerous collision parameters.

These properties allow you to do simulation, visualization, motion planning, and control.


Mesh - a polygon mesh which is a collection of vertices, edges, and faces that describes the surface of a 3D object. For a mesh to represent the fine details of a surface, a complex mesh is required. Processing a mesh gets more expensive as the mesh becomes more complex. Therefore, it is important to use a mesh with just enough detail to serve the purpose. To be compatible with Drake, all of the faces in the mesh must be triangles. Many modeling tools have a simple tool for “triangulating” the mesh.

SDF- Simulation Description Format. An XML format that describes objects and environments for robot simulators, visualization, and control. SDF is OSRF’s successor to URDF. Unlike URDF, SDF allows multiple objects to be modeled in a single SDF file, and allows you to model the pose of the robot in the world. Relative to URDF, SDF is being more actively maintained.

Texture - the digital representation of an object’s surface. A texture may include color, brightness, transparency, reflectivity, and other aspects. The texture is mapped onto a preexisting surface.

URDF- Unified Robot Description Format, an XML format for representing one model of a robot or other object. Unlike SDF, only one object can be modeled per file, and pose cannot be modeled. Drake’s URDF extends the official ROS URDF.

File formats for Drake model components

Model file format

Drake’s models can be defined in either URDF or SDF file formats, but SDF is newer and thus preferred. They are similar formats. Both are XML-based.

Mesh file format

Drake can accept the following mesh file formats:

  • DAE (digital asset exchange) - can include textures.
  • OBJ - a 3D geometry definition file format.
  • STL (STereo Lithography) - describes only the surface geometry of a three-dimensional object without any representation of color, texture or other common CAD model attributes.
  • WRL- obsolete, but used in Drake. A text file format. Allows you to specify surface color, textures, shininess, transparency, and other parameters. Vertices and edges for a 3D polygon can be specified.

The content of a Model file

For a simple example, see this cinder block example. As you can see, an SDF file is an XML file.

The way the model looks in an SDF file is given by the “visual” tag. In the example, it looks like this:

<visual name="visual">

The visual is defined to be a mesh given by this DAE file. The DAE mesh file defines many things concerning the look of the object, including a reference to a PNG file which defines the texture. If you open the PNG file in an image viewing program like GIMP, you will see it shows the pitted texture and grey color of a cinder block.

While the visual properties define how the model looks, often we need to describe the shape of the hard parts of the model (the rigid bodies), which the SDF file defines with a “collision” tag. You may wonder why we don’t use the visual mesh for the collision element. That is possible, and it would be accurate, but a visual mesh is usually very detailed and complex, making it computationally expensive to use as a collision model.

A much simpler way to describe a shape is with geometric primitives, such as cylinders, spheres, or boxes. The complexity of a geometric primitive is far less than with a mesh. If you look at the cinder block SDF file, you’ll see that the geometries of the collision elements are defined as boxes, instead of using the mesh. In this cinder block, the outline of the object is a rectangle (ignoring the holes in the cinder block), so we can use the box shape.

See the URDF or SDF references for more information.

The best way to learn how to create a model is to examine and change an existing, working model. This tutorial walks through editing a model in Drake.

Simplifying a Mesh

Meshes of complicated objects contain many vertices. The detail (density) of the mesh makes the visual representation look realistic. However when a mesh is used for a collision element, collision algorithms must process the entire mesh, which can be slow. For these reasons it is often desirable for the collision model to use a simpler structure than the original high density mesh.

Q: What is the easiest way to use something simpler for a collision model?

A: If you are starting with a mesh of an object (e.g., from a 3D scanner), you may be able to use a primitive geometric shape (e.g., cylinder, box, or sphere) instead of the mesh, as described above. To do this, consider a tool like Gazebo, which provides a visual editor of model files, and allows you to modify primitive geometric shapes in your model.

Q: A single geometric shape is not accurate enough for my needs. What else can I do?

A: You can use multiple overlapping geometric shapes to define slightly more complex collision elements.

Q: I need something much more accurate than these simple shapes. How do I simplify a mesh?

A: Sometimes you really need the accuracy of a mesh.

In the iiwa14.urdf robotic arm example, we use meshes for the visual geometry elements, and cylinders for the collision elements, except for the last links where meshes are used. The idea is that for links of the arm, we don’t need exact shapes for collision, where we don’t expect to need precision. Even if we were to use an “elbow” to shove an object out of the way, we probably don’t need exact accuracy. It’s possible we may desire more precision for the links at the end of the arm, if the arm is reaching into tight or crowded spaces or performing dexterous manipulation tasks.

An existing complex mesh can be simplified using a tool like Blender, a free and open source 3D creation suite.