NASA Astrobee Robot Software  0.17.2
Flight software for the Astrobee robots operating inside the International Space Station.
Map building

Here we describe how to build a map.


  1. Set up the environment.
  2. Reduce the number of images.
  3. Build the map.
  4. Find control points in Hugin, and create a list of their coordinates.
  5. Register the map.

Detailed explanation

Setup the environment

In the first step, one needs to set some environmental variables, as follows:

export ASTROBEE_SOURCE_PATH=$HOME/astrobee/src
export ASTROBEE_WORLD=granite

The source and build paths need to be adjusted for your particular setup.

Also consider setting:

export PATH=$ASTROBEE_BUILD_PATH/devel/lib/sparse_mapping:$PATH

to have the build_map and other related tools in your path.

Above, p4d is the robot being used to take pictures, and the world is the granite table. These may need to change, depending on your goals.

Under the hood, the following configuration files will be read:


which contains the image width and height (the camera we use is the nav cam) and


having nav cam's intrinsics. If your camera is not the nav cam on p4d, and none of the other available config files apply, you can just temporarily modify the above files to reflect your camera's parameters (without checking in your changes).

More details on these and other environmental variables can be found in the General Considerations configuration documentation.

Partition the files into movement sequences and reduce the number of images to improve bundle-adjustment accuracy

rosrun sparse_mapping image_directory_name config_path

Partitions a sequentially ordered set of image files into valid, rotation, and invalid sequences. During bundle adjustment, it is useful to avoid adding pure rotation sequences initially as these cause errors for monocular systems. The resulting sequences can be individually bundle-adjusted and merged as described later, generally starting with the valid (non-rotation) sequences and optionally adding rotations at the end once enough matches exist in the map. Also deletes subsequent images with low movement from that directory to improve mapping performance and accuracy. See 'rosrun sparse_mapping -h' for more usage details, options, and instructions.

These are non-reversible operations, so they should be invoked on a copy of the images.

If possible, the robot should have some translation motion (in addition to any rotation) when the data is acquired.

Removing low movement images and initially only adding valid movement images helps the accuracy of bundle adjustment, which struggles to optimize camera poses with small or no translation changes.

Building a map

Execute this command to construct a complete map:

build_map <image dir>/*.jpg [ -num_subsequent_images <val> ] \
  -histogram_equalization -output_map <>

During map building, every image will be matched against every subsequent image in the sequence. To use only a limited number of subsequent images, set the value passed to the -num_subsequent_images flag. Later, we will also see how to match only similar images using a vocabulary tree.

The runtime of the algorithm is directly proportional to the number of input images times the number input to -num_subsequent_images. Making the latter small will result in more drift. If you know that a region will be revisited after say 100 images, use this number for this parameter. Making this too big will result in very slow map building.

The flag -histogram_equalization equalizes the histogram of the images before doing feature detection. It was shown to create maps that are more robust to illumination changes.

In practice, the map is build in pieces, and then merged. Then the above process needs to be modified. See Sparse mapping for the procedure.

Map building pipeline

The build_map command runs a number of steps, which can also be invoked individually for further control.

Detect interest points

build_map <image dir>/*.jpg -feature_detection [ -sample_rate <N> ]
  -histogram_equalization [ -detector <detector> ] [ -descriptor <descriptor> ]

Detects features in all of the input images and save them to a map file. The -sample_rate <N> flag, if specified, builds the map from only one out of N input images. If desired, the feature detector and feature descriptor can be specified. The default is ORGBRISK.

Here and below we omitted for brevity the -output_map option that is needed for the tool to run. The images need to be specified only at step 1 above, and not below, as by then they are remembered by the map.

Match images

build_map -feature_matching -histogram_equalization [ -num_subsequent_images <val> ]

Match the detected features between images, detecting similar features that appear in multiple images. The number of subsequent images to match against can be specified, otherwise all pairwise matches are evaluated.

Build tracks

build_map -track_building -histogram_equalization

Take the feature matches and form "tracks" of features seen consistently across multiple frames.

Incremental bundle adjustment

build_map -incremental_ba -histogram_equalization

Bundle adjustment

build_map -bundle_adjustment -histogram_equalization

Adjust the initial transformations to minimize error with bundle adjustment.

If the options:

-first_ba_index and -last_ba_index

are specified, only cameras with indices between these (including both endpoints) will be optimized during bundle adjustment.

Map rebuilding

build_map -rebuild -histogram_equalization

Rebuilds the map with a different feature set (by default, BRISK features). The initial map can be built with high quality features, such as SURF, and then rebuilt with faster features for localization, such as BRISK. During rebuilding the cameras are kept fixed by default, since BRISK features, while faster, may be fewer and less accurate.

Rebuilding is much faster than building from scratch, since it borrows from the original map the information about which images can be matched to which, and also reuses the camera positions.

To replace the camera intrinsics during rebuilding, one can use -rebuild_replace_camera, when the camera is set via ASTROBEE_ROBOT. Camera positions and orientations can be re-optimized with -rebuild_refloat_cameras. To rebuild with a desired feature detector, use the option -rebuild_detector.

Note that rebuilding the map does not rebuild the vocabulary database which should be done as below.

Rebuilding a map while floating the cameras is not recommended if the map had images taken out of it as is typically done to reduce its size in order to be deployed on the robot. Refloating the cameras may then result in the map breaking up into several connected components that would drift from each other.

If it is desired to take out images from the map, it should happen at this stage, before the vocabulary database and pruning happens at the next step. See Sparse mapping when it comes to such operations, where the script is used.

Vocabulary database

build_map -vocab_db

Builds a vocabulary database for fast lookup of matching image pairs. Without this, we have to compare to every image in the map for localization. The vocabulary database makes parts of the runtime logarithmic instead of linear.

It is very important to note that when the vocabulary database is created the map is pruned from features that show up in just one image. This is an irreversible operation and after it no other operations can be performed on this map, such as extracting as submap, or even recreating the vocabulary database again without a large loss of quality. Hence this operation must be the very last to be applied to a map.

At this stage the map is ready to be used on the robot.

Building a SURF map only

The above options can also be chained. For example, to run the pipeline to just create a SURF map one can do:

build_map <image dir>/*.jpg -feature_detection -feature_matching \
  -track_building -incremental_ba -bundle_adjustment             \
  -histogram_equalization -num_subsequent_images 100

Additional options

There are a few steps that can be used which are not included in the default map building process. These include:

  • -loop_closure: Take a map where images start repeating, and close the loop. This is not used much, as loop closure is handled automatically for loops smaller than what is given in -num_subsequent_images. For very large loops it is better to build the map in two overlapping pieces, and use merge_maps to merge them which will close loops as well.
  • -covariance_computation: Compute the covariance of the triangulated points (after bundle adjustment only).
  • -registration: Register to a real-world coordinate system, discussed later.
  • -verification: Verify how an already registered map performs on an independently acquired set of control points and corresponding 3D measurements.
  • -info: Print some information about the map, including list of images, and if histogram equalization was used, and the latter can have the values: 0 (not used), 1 (was used), 2 (unknown).

The following options can be used to create more interest point features:

-min_surf_features, -max_surf_features, -min_surf_threshold,
-default_surf_threshold, -max_surf_threshold, -min_brisk_features,
-max_brisk_features, -min_brisk_threshold, -default_brisk_threshold,
-max_brisk_threshold, -histogram_equalization

The build_map command uses the file as both input and output unless the flag -output_map is specified.

Map registration

Maps are built in an arbitrary coordinate system. They need to be transformed to a real-world coordinate system using manually defined control points.

To accomplish this, first open a subset of the images used to build the map in Hugin, such as:

hugin <image dir>/*.jpg

It will ask to enter a value for the FoV (field of view). That value is not important since we won't use it. One can input 10 degrees, for example.

Alternatively you can use the generate hugin tool that reads the images from a map and imports them automatically (all images will be added).

rosrun sparse_mapping -map_name <> \
  -input_hugin <input_hugin.pto -- OPTIONAL ARGUMENT> 
  -output_hugin <output_hugin.pto>

If you desire to update an existing hugin file for a new map keeping the already defined control points (when adding images to a map) you can specify the -input_hugin argument (if there are images in the input hugin that are not on the map, they will be automatically removed)

Go to the "Expert" interface, then select matching control points across a pair of images (make sure the left and right image are not the same). Then repeat this process for several more pairs.

Save the Hugin project to disk. Create a separate text file which contains the world coordinates of the control points picked earlier, with each line in the "x y z" format, and in the same order as the Hugin project file. That is to say, if a control point was picked in several image pairs in Hugin, it must show up also the same number of times in the text file. In the xyz text file all lines starting with the pound sign (#) are ignored, as well as all entries on any line beyond three numerical values.

The xyz locations of the control points for the granite lab, the ISS and MGTF are mentioned below.

If a set of world coordinates needs to be acquired, one can use the Total Station. (Alternatively one can can try the Faro instrument but that is more technically involved.)

Register the map with the command:

/bin/cp -fv
build_map -registration <hugin files> <xyz files> -num_ba_passes 0 \
 -registration_skip_bundle_adjustment -skip_filtering              \

There can be multiple such files passed as input. Control point files are expected to end in .pto, while xyz files in .txt.

In practice, to not make mistakes, it is far easier to have both Hugin and the text file with the xyz points opened at the same time. Each time a point is added in Hugin and the project is saved, its xyz coordinates can be saved to the text file, and the above command can be run.

After registration is done, it will print each transformed coordinate point from the map and its corresponding measured point, as well as the error among the two. That will look as follows:

transformed computed xyz -- measured xyz -- error norm (meters)
-0.0149 -0.0539  0.0120 --  0.0000  0.0000  0.0000 --  0.0472 img1.jpg img2.jpg
 1.8587  0.9533  0.1531 --  1.8710  0.9330  0.1620 --  0.0254 img3.jpg img4.jpg

The error norm should be no more than 3-5 cm. If for a point the error is too large, perhaps something went wrong in picking the points. That point can be deleted and reacquired, perhaps with a different image pair.

If all errors are large, that may mean the camera calibration is wrong and needs to be redone, and the map rebuilt, using

build_map -rebuild -rebuild_refloat_cameras -rebuild_replace_camera \

or one should create images that are closer to the points used in registration.

Note that we did registration without bundle adjustment, which would further refine the cameras using the xyz world coordinates as a constraint. The latter should not be necessary if the map is geometrically correct.

If such bundle adjustment is desired, it will keep the xyz measurements fixed during this optimization (unlike the xyz points obtained purely through interest point matching and triangulation) because the measurements are assumed already accurate.

When a registered SURF map is available with features already picked in Hugin as described earlier, and it is desired to register a map of the same region but with different images, instead of picking registration points in the new images it is simpler to merge that map to the registered map while doing bundle adjustment, re-register the merged map, and extract from it the submap corresponding to the new image set.

Registration in the granite lab

See the xyz coordinates of the control points used for registration in the Granite Lab Registration section.

Registration on the ISS

No xyz coordinate measurements exist for the ISS. Instead, 3D points were picked in simulation in the JPM module of ISS. They are available in the file iss_registration.txt in this directory. These points can be visualized in the ISS as follows:

Open two terminals, and in each one type:

source $ASTROBEE_BUILD_PATH/devel/setup.bash

The Astrobee directory above must have src and devel subdirectories, and needs to be adjusted given its location on your disk.

In the first terminal start the simulator:

roslaunch astrobee sim.launch speed:=0.75 rviz:=true  

In the second, run:

python $ASTROBEE_SOURCE_PATH/localization/sparse_mapping/tools/ \

Go back to the simulated ISS and examine the registration points. If the Rviz display looks too cluttered, most topics can be turned off. The registration points will be shown in Rviz under


If this topic is unchecked, it should be checked and one should run the Python script above again.

Each point will be displayed as a red dot and a white text label, according to the fourth column in iss_registration.txt. Sometimes the ISS obscures the text labels, in that case it can be temporarily turned off in Rviz. It is suggested to use the points starting with letter "V", as those were carefully validated. Points starting with letter "P" were not validated. Points starting with letter "B" were shown to be not accurate and should not be used.

To create new points in this file, one runs in a terminal (after setting up the environment as above):

rostopic echo /clicked_point

then goes to RViz, clicks on the toolbar on "Publish Point", and clicks on a point on the ISS body. Its coordinates will be echoed in the terminal. Note that these points will be in the "rviz" frame, while we need them in the "world" frame. To perform this conversion, flip the sign of the y and z coordinates.

After the file with the datapoints is saved, re-running the earlier Python command will refresh them.

Registration in the MGTF

A set of 10 registration points were measured in the MGTF with the Total Station. They are in the file:


Two of these are on the back wall, and the rest are on the metal columns on the side walls, with four on each wall. Half of the points are at eye level, and half at about knee-level.

Each such point is a corner of a portion of a checkerboard pattern, and it has a number written on the paper it is printed on, which is the id from the above file. A careful inspection of the MGTF may be needed to identify them.

Map verification

A registered and bundle-adjusted map can be used to study how well it predicts the computed 3D locations for an independently acquired set of control points and 3D measurements. These are in the same format as for registration. The map is not modified in any way during this step, The command is:

build_map -verification <hugin files> <xyz files>

Sparse map performance and quality evaluation on the robot

(See below about how it can be done on a local machine.)

To test how the map may perform on the robot, do the following:

Stage the new map

Copy the new map on the robot MLP (preferably in /data):

scp <> mlp:/data

On the MLP, move the current map aside:

ssh mlp
cd /res/maps

On the MLP, create a symlink to the new map:
ln -s /data/< /res/maps/

Stage the bag with images:

rsync --archive --partial --progress directory_of_bags mlp:/data/bags

Stage the feature counter utility (should be added to the install at one point):

scp $ASTROBEE_SOURCE_PATH/localization/marker_tracking/ros/tools/ mlp:

Launch the localization node on LLP

You will have to edit the file:


on MLP and LLP to replace the robot name with the robot you want to test. Please don't forget to undo your changes at the end, as otherwise this robot will give wrong results for other users.

Then launch localization:

ssh llp
roslaunch astrobee astrobee.launch llp:=disabled mlp:=mlp \

Play the bags (on MLP)

cd /data/bags/directory_of_bags
export ROS_MASTER_URI=http://llp:11311
rosbag play --clock --loop *.bag                       \
  /mgt/img_sampler/nav_cam/image_record:=/hw/cam_nav   \
  /loc/ml/features:=/loc/ml/old_features               \

Enable localization and the mapped landmark production (on MLP)

This must happen after the bags start playing:

export ROS_MASTER_URI=http://llp:11311
rosservice call /loc/ml/enable true

If this command returns an error saying that the service is not available, wait a little and try again.

It is important to check the topics that were recorded to the bag. If the nav camera was recorded on /mgt/img_sampler/nav_cam/image_record instead of /hw/cam_nav, as it happens when recording data on the ISS, it must be redirected to the proper topic, as we do above. If localization was running when the bag was recorded and hence the topics /loc/ml/features and /loc/ml/registration were recorded, they must be redirected to something else (above /tmp1 and /tmp2 was used) to not conflict with actual localization results that would be now created based on the images in the bag.

Examine the performance and features on MLP

Look at the load with htop

Watch the frequency of feature production

rostopic hz -w 5 /loc/ml/features

and echo the pose being output with the features:

rostopic echo /loc/ml/features | grep -A 17 header:

Watch the number of features being produced:

~/ ml

Verify localization against a sparse map on a local machine

To test localization of data from a bag against a map, one need not run things on the robot, but use instead a local machine. This should result on similar results as on the robot, but the speed of computations may differ.


Set up the environment in every terminal that is used. Ensure that you use the correct robot name below.

source $ASTROBEE_BUILD_PATH/devel/setup.bash
export ASTROBEE_ROBOT=bumble # your robot's name may be different

Examine the localization configuration file:


Sym link the map to test:

mkdir -p $ASTROBEE_SOURCE_PATH/astrobee/resources/maps
rm -fv $ASTROBEE_SOURCE_PATH/astrobee/resources/maps/
ln -s $(pwd)/ $ASTROBEE_SOURCE_PATH/astrobee/resources/maps/

Start localization

roslaunch astrobee astrobee.launch mlp:=local llp:=disabled  \
  nodes:=framestore,localization_node robot:=$ASTROBEE_ROBOT \

Note how we specify the robot name at the end.

Play the bag

As above, one must play a bag with the --clock option, while redirecting the existing /loc topics, and ensure that the images are published on /hw/cam_nav:

rosbag play --clock mybag.bag                          \
  /mgt/img_sampler/nav_cam/image_record:=/hw/cam_nav   \
  /loc/ml/features:=/loc/ml/old_features               \

Enable localization


rosservice call /loc/ml/enable true

If this fails, try again in a little while.

Alternative approach

The steps of launching localization, playing the bag, and enabling localization can also be run from a launch file, as follows:

roslaunch $ASTROBEE_SOURCE_PATH/astrobee/launch/offline_localization/sparse_mapping_matching_from_bag.launch \
   bagfile:=$(pwd)/mybag.bag \
   robot:=$ASTROBEE_ROBOT    \

It is very important that an absolute path to the bag be used, otherwise this command will fail. Errors about failing to start the rosservice to enable localization can be ignored, as that service will be started until it succeeds.

Examining the results

The poses of the newly localized camera images can be displayed as:

rostopic echo /loc/ml/features | grep -A 17 header:

and compared to the old ones via:

rostopic echo /loc/ml/old_features | grep -A 17 header:

Evaluating the map without running the localization node

See the ekfbag page for how to run the sparse_map_eval tool that takes as inputs a bag and a BRISK map and prints the number of detected features.

Note that this approach may give slightly different results than using the localization node, and even with using this node, things can differ somewhat if running on a local machine vs running on the robot. Hence, the most faithful test is the one in which such experiments are performed on a robot, and ensuring that the software version on that robot is the same as for the real robot on the space station, if the goal is to prepare a map for an actual flight. The software version on the robot can be found using:

cat /opt/astrobee/version.txt