So you have had a taste of driving a virtual Husky in our previous tutorial, but now want to try something a little bigger? How about 2000 lbs bigger?
If you were to design the worst possible environment for software engineering, the cramped jump seat of a John Deere tractor would be a contender. The sound and vibration of the engine makes conversation and concentration difficult. If the sun isn’t making it impossible to see the monitor, the blowing dust is.
In the previous ROS 101 post, we showed how easy it is to get ROS going inside a virtual machine, publish topics and subscribe to them. If you haven’t had a chance to check the out all the previous ROS 101 tutorials, you may want to do so before we go on. In this post, we’re going to drive a Husky in a virtual environment, and examine how ROS passes topics around.
As part of a resupply mission to the International Space Station, ROS will board a SpaceX Rocket on March 16 and, barring inclement weather, will launch into space. According to a blogpost by Brian Gerkey at the OSRF, SpaceX will deliver a set of robotic legs for the Robonaut 2 (R2) humanoid torso that is currently aboard the ISS: “Once those legs are attached to R2, ROS will officially be running in space.”
In the previous ROS 101 post, we provided a quick introduction to ROS to answer questions like What is ROS? and How do I get started? Now that you understand the basics, here’s how they can apply to a practical example. Follow along to see how we actually ‘do’ all of these things …
Clearpath Robotics brings us a new tutorial series on ROS!
Since we practically live in the Robot Operating System (ROS), we thought it was time to share some tips on how to get started with ROS. We’ll answer questions like where do I begin? How do I get started? What terminology should I brush up on? Keep an eye out for this ongoing ROS 101 blog series that will provide you with a top to bottom view of ROS that will focus on introducing basic concepts simply, cleanly and at a reasonable pace. This guide is meant as a groundwork for new users, which can then be used to jump into in-depth data at wiki.ros.org. If you are totally unfamiliar with ROS, Linux, or both, this is the place for you!
Open source vs. proprietary software is an age old question. Since the advent of robotics, we also have the question of open source hardware.
In academia, where robotics researchers look to open source as a means of advancing community knowledge, the answer is perhaps more obvious. But in business, it’s clearly a balancing act. And so, ‘To be open, or not to be open?’ — that is the question for our panelists this month.
We asked Frank Tobe, Robert Morris and Brian Gerkey to weigh in. Here’s what they have to say …
The IT economy has powerfully demonstrated what happens when companies can leverage open source infrastructure when they build new products and services. A company like Google would never have come into existence had they not been able to rely from the beginning on solid open source tools like Python and GCC. IBM would arguably have not been able to make its immensely successful pivot from products to services without Linux. How many startups these days begin as a cloud-hosted machine running some derivative of the venerable LAMP stack? …
The premise of this question is that robotics companies are manufacturers and that there is choice between an open source and closed source business model. Robotics companies are best thought of as service companies (even manufacturers, especially when moving beyond early adopters) and openness is not an ‘either/or’ choice, but rather a continuum. In this day and age the question is, ‘What do you need to keep open create value for your customers?’ …
Certainly robotics has its share of proprietary software and control systems. Each robot manufacturer markets their products based on the need for secure, proprietary and un-shared systems so that they can ensure stability and control. Whole industries have been set up to bridge those proprietary barriers so that multi-vendor solutions can happen …
The IT economy has powerfully demonstrated what happens when companies can leverage open source infrastructure when they build new products and services. A company like Google would never have come into existence had they not been able to rely from the beginning on solid open source tools like Python and GCC. IBM would arguably have not been able to make its immensely successful pivot from products to services without Linux. How many startups these days begin as a cloud-hosted machine running some derivative of the venerable LAMP stack? And increasingly the underlying cloud infrastructure itself is open.
While arguing by analogy is fraught with peril, I believe that the similarities between robotics and the rest of the IT world are strong enough to justify it. In robotics, we have many shared problems to solve when developing a product or service, from low-level drivers to high-level capabilities, and all the developer libraries and tools in between. I have yet to see a successful robotics business for whom any of that stuff is the competitive advantage. Rather, success comes from the innovative composition and application of that technology in a form that somebody will pay for. The hard part is figuring out what the robot should *do*. By working together on the common underlying problems, we end up with better, more reliable solutions, and we free ourselves to spend more time at the application level, which is where we can differentiate ourselves.
In other words, I believe that open source is a great model for the robotics business as a whole. Now, is it a good model for any individual company? It certainly can be. As examples, we see small-to-medium companies, such as Clearpath Robotics, Rethink Robotics, and Yujin Robot, which use ROS directly in their products. And we see larger companies, such as Bosch and Toyota, using ROS in R&D and prototyping efforts. These are all profit-motivated companies making what is presumably a rational economic decision to rely on open source software. They’re each holding something back that is their “special sauce,” whether that’s higher level application software, configuration data, customizations to the open source code, or the designs for the hardware. And that’s expected: unless you’re in a pure consulting business (selling your time), then you need to own and control something that forms the basis of your product or service offering (to allow you to sell something other than your time).
Fortunately, open source software is entirely compatible with such business models. In fact, it was our hope to one day see such commercial users of ROS that led us to choose a permissive license (BSD, or Apache 2) for the code that we developed. We’re now witnessing, with the debut of so many new robotics companies, the fruits of those earlier labors in building a shared development platform.
UPDATED: October 6, 2013
Small and medium shops and factories (SMEs) are an untapped marketplace for robotics but direly in need of automation to remain competitive in this global economy. Two new start up companies: Rethink Robotics and Universal Robots have entered that marketplace. Both companies have U.S. sales in the hundreds of units; Universal has a head start internationally and has sold about 3,000 to-date, but Rethink is way ahead in the US. Both have similar 60-100/mo manufacturing run rates – so the future looks bright for selling flexible, lightweight, low-cost robots that are easily programmed, safe for humans to work alongside, don’t require a caged or roped off area, and perform at affordable metrics.
ROS-I is developing and promoting a manufacturer-independent open-source library of drivers and the transfer of established components from research to industry – not just h/w interfaces and MS, IOS and Android support, but legal and standardization issues as well.
So, depending on who you ask, Willow Garage is shutting down, pursuing commercial interests, or changing direction. But things are not as dire as some may think: ROS is fine (the OSRF will support it) and there are many options for Willow Garage to explore. Personally I’m hoping it will be snatched up by Stanford or another academic institution and become a research institute. But given the number of robots they have out (and their price tags!), a commercial path into the future seems even more likely. In any case, I doubt that Willow Garage will disappear just like that.
What caused the changes is that Willow’s founder and funder, Scott Hassan, has decided that it’s time to wean Willow Garage from his private financial support.
It is clear to me that the next big markets for robotics are:
The past year was a watershed moment for robotics. From defense to exploration, startups to legislation, we saw products, laws, and investments that have shifted robotics out of the lab and into our lives. They have built on decades of basic and applied research, taking advantage of plummeting component costs and maturing core technologies such as batteries and communications. Below are the top 10 stories of 2012. And choosing only 10 from so many successes, research, and new products was extremely difficult. Perhaps that’s really the best story of the year.