Learning Lightweight Object Detectors via Multi-Teacher Progressive Distillation

Shengcao Cao, Mengtian Li, James Hays, Deva Ramanan, Yu Xiong Wang, Liang Yan Gui

Research output: Contribution to journalConference articlepeer-review


Resource-constrained perception systems such as edge computing and vision-for-robotics require vision models to be both accurate and lightweight in computation and memory usage. While knowledge distillation is a proven strategy to enhance the performance of lightweight classification models, its application to structured outputs like object detection and instance segmentation remains a complicated task, due to the variability in outputs and complex internal network modules involved in the distillation process. In this paper, we propose a simple yet surprisingly effective sequential approach to knowledge distillation that progressively transfers the knowledge of a set of teacher detectors to a given lightweight student. To distill knowledge from a highly accurate but complex teacher model, we construct a sequence of teachers to help the student gradually adapt. Our progressive strategy can be easily combined with existing detection distillation mechanisms to consistently maximize student performance in various settings. To the best of our knowledge, we are the first to successfully distill knowledge from Transformer-based teacher detectors to convolution-based students, and unprecedentedly boost the performance of ResNet-50 based RetinaNet from 36.5% to 42.0% AP and Mask R-CNN from 38.2% to 42.5% AP on the MS COCO benchmark. Code available at https://github.com/Shengcao-Cao/MTPD.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3577-3598
Number of pages22
JournalProceedings of Machine Learning Research
StatePublished - 2023
Event40th International Conference on Machine Learning, ICML 2023 - Honolulu, United States
Duration: Jul 23 2023Jul 29 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Software
  • Control and Systems Engineering
  • Statistics and Probability


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