Trajectory Optimization of a Pendulum with Mixed Integer Linear Programming

There is a reasonable piecewise linear approximation for the pendulum replacing the the sinusoidal potential with two quadratic potentials (one around the top and one around the bottom). This translates to a triangle wave torque.

Cvxpy curiously has support for Mixed Integer Programming.

Cbc is probably better than GLPK MI. However, GLPK is way easier to get installed. Just brew install glpk and pip install cvxopt.

Getting cbc working was a bit of a journey. I had to actually BUILD Cylp (god forbid) and fix some problems.

Special Ordered Set constraints are useful for piecewise linear approximations. The SOS2 constraints take a set of variables and make it so that only two consecutive ones can be nonzero at a time. Solvers often have built in support for them, which can be much faster than just blasting them with general constraints. I did it by adding a binary variable for every consecutive pair. Then these binary variables suppress the continuous ones. Setting the sum of the binary variables to 1 makes only one able to be nonzero.


One downside is that every evaluation of these non linear functions requires a new set of integer and binary variables, which is possibly quite expensive.

For some values of total time steps and step length, the solver can go off the rails and never return.

At the moment, the solve is not fast enough for real time control with CBC (~ 2s). I wonder how much some kind of warm start might or more fiddling with heuristics, or if I had access to the built in SOS2 constraints rather than hacking it in. Also commercial solvers are usually faster. Still it is interesting.

Blue is angle, orange is the applied torque. The torque is running up against the limits I placed on it.

More Reinforcement Learning with cvxpy

So I spent thanksgiving doing this and playing Zelda. Even though that sounds like a hell of a day, seems a little sad for thanksgiving :(. I should probably make more of an effort to go home next year.

I tried implementing a more traditional q-learning pipeline using cvxpy (rather than the inequality trick of the last time). Couldn’t get it to work as well. And it’s still kind of slow despite a lot of rearrangement to vectorize operations (through batching basically).

I guess I’m still entranced with the idea of avoiding neural networks. In a sense, that is the old boring way of doing things. The Deep RL is the new stuff. Using ordinary function approximators is way older I think. But I feel like it takes a problem out of the equation (dealing with training neural nets). Also I like modeling languages/libraries.

I kept finding show stopping bugs throughout the day (incorrectly written maxaction functions, typos, cross episode data points, etc.), so I wouldn’t be surprised if there is one still in here. It’s very surprising how one can convince oneself that it is kind of working when it is actually impossible it’s working. All these environments are so simple, that I suspect I could randomly sample controllers out of a sack for the time I’ve been fiddling with this stuff and find a good one.


I also did the easy cartpole environment using the inequality trick.  Seems to work pretty well.



I also have some Work in Progress on getting full swingup cartpole. Currently is not really working. Seems to kind of be pumping about right? The continuous force control easy cartpole does work though.


Now I feel that a thing that matters quite a bit is what is your choice of action for the next time step. Hypothetically you want a ton of samples here. I now think that using an action that is just slightly perturbed from the actual action works well because the actual action is tending to become roughly the optimal one. Subsequent time steps have roughly the same data in them.

One advantage of discrete action space is that you can really search it all.

Does that mean I should seriously investigate the sum of squares form? A semidefinite variable per data point sounds bad. I feel like I’d have to seriously limit the amount of data I’m using. Maybe I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

I haven’t even gotten to playing with different polynomials yet. The current implementation is exponentially sized in the number of variables. But in kind of a silly way. I think it would be better to use all terms of a bounded total degree.


Deriving the Chebyshev Polynomials using Sum of Squares optimization with Sympy and Cvxpy

Least squares fitting \sum (f(x_i)-y_i)^2 is very commonly used and well loved. Sum of squared fitting can be solved using just linear algebra. One of the most convincing use cases to me of linear programming is doing sum of absolute value fits \sum |f(x_i)-y_i|  and maximum deviation fits \max_i |f(x_i)-y_i|. These two quality of fits are basically just as tractable as least squares, which is pretty cool.

The trick to turning an absolute value into an LP is to look at the region above the graph of absolute value.

This region is defined by y \ge x and y \ge -x. So you introduce a new variable y. Then the LP \min y subject to those constraints will minimize the absolute value. For a sum of absolute values, introduce a variable y_i for each absolute value you have. Then minimize \sum_i y_i. If you want to do min max optimization, use the same y value for every absolute value function.

\min y

\forall i. -y \le x_i \le y

Let’s change topic a bit. Chebyshev polynomials are awesome. They are basically the polynomials you want to use in numerics.

Chebyshev polynomials are sines and cosines in disguise. They inherit tons of properties from them. One very important property is the equioscillation property. The Chebyshev polynomials are the polynomials that stay closest to zero while keeping the x^n coefficient nonzero (2^(n-2) by convention). They oscillate perfectly between -1 and 1 on the interval x \in [-1,1] just like sort of a stretched out sine. It turns out this equioscillation property defines the Chebyshev polynomials

We can approximate the Chebyshev polynomials via sampling many points between [-1,1]. Then we do min of the max absolute error optimization using linear programming. What we get out does approximate the Chebyshev polynomials.



Red is the actual Chebyshev polynomials and green is the solved for polynomials. It does a decent job. More samples will do even better, and if we picked the Chebyshev points it would be perfect.

Can we do better? Yes we can. Let’s go on a little optimization journey.

Semidefinite programming allows you to optimize matrix variables with the constraint that they have all positive eigenvalues. In a way it lets you add an infinite number of linear constraints. Another way of stating the eigenvalue constraint is that

\forall q. q^T X q \ge 0

You could sample a finite number of random q vectors and take the conjunction of all these constraints. Once you had enough, this is probably a pretty good approximation of the Semidefinite constraint. But semidefinite programming let’s you have an infinite number of the constraints in the sense that \forall q is referencing an infinite number of possible q , which is pretty remarkable.

Finite Sampling the qs has similarity to the previously discussed sampling method for absolute value minimization.

Sum of Squares optimization allows you to pick optimal polynomials with the constraint that they can be written as a sum of squares polynomials. In this form, the polynomials are manifestly positive everywhere. Sum of Squares programming is a perspective to take on Semidefinite programming. They are equivalent in power. You solve SOS programs under the hood by transforming them into semidefinite ones.

You can write a polynomial as a vector of coefficients \tilde{a}.

\tilde{x} = \begin{bmatrix} 1 \\ x \\ x^2 \\ x^3 \\ \vdots \end{bmatrix}

\tilde{a} = \begin{bmatrix} a_0 \\ a_1 \\ a_2 \\ a_3 \\ \vdots \end{bmatrix}

p(x)=\tilde{a}^T \tilde{x}

Instead we represent the polynomial with the matrix Q

p(x) = \tilde{x}^T Q \tilde{x}

If the matrix is positive semidefinite, then it can be diagonalized into the sum of squares form.

In all honesty, this all sounds quite esoteric, and it kind of is. I struggle to find problems to solve with this stuff. But here we are! We’ve got one! We’re gonna find the Chebyshev polynomials exactly by translating the previous method to SOS.

The formulation is a direct transcription of the above tricks.

\min t

-t \le p(x) \le t  by which I mean p(x) + t is SOS and t - p(x) is SOS.

There are a couple packages available for python already that already do SOS, .

ncpol2sdpa (

Irene (

SumofSquares.jl for Julia and SOSTools for Matlab. YalMip too I think. Instead of using those packages, I want to roll my own, like a doofus.

Sympy already has very useful polynomial manipulation functionality. What we’re going to do is form up the appropriate expressions by collecting powers of x, and then turn them into cvxpy expressions term by term. The transcription from sympy to cvxpy isn’t so bad, especially with a couple helper functions.

One annoying extra thing we have to do is known as the S-procedure. We don’t care about regions outside of x \in [-1,1]. We can specify this with a polynomial inequality (x+1)(x-1) \ge 0. If we multiply this polynomial by any manifestly positive polynomial (a SOS polynomial in particular will work), it will remain positive in the region we care about. We can then add this function into all of our SOS inequalities to make them easier to satisfy. This is very similar to a Lagrange multiplier procedure.

Now all of this seems reasonable. But it is not clear to me that we have the truly best polynomial in hand with this s-procedure business. But it seems to works out.


Ooooooh yeah. Those curves are so similar you can’t even see the difference. NICE. JUICY.

There are a couple interesting extension to this. We could find global under or over approximating polynomials. This might be nice for a verified compression of a big polynomial to smaller, simpler polynomials for example. We could also similar form the pointwise best approximation of any arbitrary polynomial f(x) rather than the constant 0 like we did above (replace -t \le p(x) \le t for -t \le p(x) - f(x) \le t in the above). Or perhaps we could use it to find a best polynomial fit for some differential equation according to a pointwise error.

I think we could also extend this method to minimizing the mean absolute value integral just like we did in the sampling case.

\min \int_0^1 t(x)dx

-t(x) \le p(x) \le t(x)


More references on Sum of Squares optimization: