People say the darndest things! And some of those statements add to the puzzle that is Willow Garage.
2013 was a year filled with talk of drones.
I’m not saying this just because I’m biased by the recent news reporting on how large companies (Amazon, DHL, and UPS to be exact) are exploring the use of drones as a new delivery mechanism. If this is news to you, don’t worry. The robotics community came across this only a couple of weeks ago.
It’s not every day you get to ask pioneering robot startup founders about their journey. The Robolution panel at the Pioneers Festival in Vienna comprised Rodney Brooks from Rethink Robotics and previously iRobot, Steve Cousins from Savioke and previously Willow Garage, Noland Katter from Anybots, and Walter Wohlkinger and Michael Zillich of Blue Danube Robotics, a new startup from Vienna University. Between them the panelists have started or spunoff well over 15 robotics companies, started the first robotics venture fund and been hugely influential in shaping the current rapidly emerging robot startup space. ‘Fast, cheap and out of control’ was Brooks’s 1987 insight into robot exploration of the solar system, but is very apt today, as drivers like open source software, affordable COTS and crowdfunding expand possibilities.
RoboBusiness 2013, held last week at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Silicon Valley, was a revitalized example of previous RoboBusiness events. Throughout the three-day event, there was renewed energy, attentiveness and excitement for the broad business of robotics. It was easy to see that EH Publishing, the producer of the event, had invested heavily in making the show the success that it was.
Unbounded Robotics today launched UBR-1, a robot that has many of us very excited. UBR is the first robot with intelligence, manipulation and mobility for below $50k. While UBR definitely resembles a smaller, cuter PR2, the UBR is actually more sophisticated. After all, the PR2 was developed 5 years ago and a lot has changed in robotics since. As well as being offered to universities as a research platform, the UBR can be deployed in business automation or logistics settings, like a Baxter but mobile. At one tenth the price of a PR2, and more sophisticated than any other similarly priced robot, UBR is going to move the goal posts for robotics.
To be able to choose between proprietary software packages is to be able to choose your master. Freedom means not having a master. Freedom means not using proprietary software.
- Richard Stallman, open systems advocate
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.
Two prominent people in the robotics industry had a discussion on the subject last year. In a spirited cocktail party debate in Lyon, France at InnoRobo 2012, an innovation forum and trade show for service robotics, Colin Angle and Robert Bauer argued their points of view.
Angle suggested that freely providing such a key and critical component as the robotic operating and simulation system – and the extensive libraries that go with it – as the Open Source Robotics Foundation (previously Willow Garage) does with their open source and unprotected robotic operating system (ROS) – was tantamount to letting the biggest consumer giant(s) gobble up any mass market applications and re-market them globally at low cost because they already have (or could easily reverse-engineer) the hardware and could produce it cheaply, the operating system was free courtesy of ROS, and the only real cost was the acquisition of the application(s).
Angle thought that it was dangerous and led to losing a potentially American/European market to offshore commodity conglomerates, and said:
Robotics innovation represents a tremendous opportunity for economic growth akin to automobiles, aerospace and information technology. If we are to freely share our ‘intellectual capital’ on the open market we risk losing the economic engine that will advance our economies and send growth and jobs overseas.
The issue of losing trade secrets to foreign conglomerates has been a continuing focus at Bloomberg Businessweek magazine:
In November, 14 U.S. intelligence agencies issued a report describing a far-reaching industrial espionage campaign by Chinese spy agencies. This campaign has been in the works for years and targets a swath of industries: biotechnology, telecommunications, and nanotechnology, as well as clean energy. “It’s the greatest transfer of wealth in history,” said General Keith Alexander, director of the National Security Agency.
Bauer said that Willow Garage’s objectives with ROS was to stimulate the industry by enabling participants to not have to reinvent the many cross-science elements of robotics ventures; to reuse software because it saves developer time and allows researchers to focus on research. By giving them free access to the tools, libraries and simulation capabilities of ROS, and access to the PR2s that are available for testing and experimentation, Willow Garage hoped to advance the state-of-the-art in autonomous robotics technologies.
Bauer also said that, once a successful app was developed, at that point the new endeavor would likely lock down the operating system and application software in order to protect their invention.
Angle suggested that what the robotic industry needs for inspiration is successful robotics companies – profitable companies with millionaire employees selling in-demand products; not more notches on the oversized belts of big offshore conglomerates. Further, he said that unless ROS is protected and made stable and secure, it could never be used for sensitive (defense, space, security) solutions, and until it became rugged, secure and stable, it could never be used in factories, which cannot afford down time from either their robots or software.
Since that time, solutions that bridge the open vs. shut debate are showing up in many sectors:
Thus as the debate rages on, so too do the very pragmatic solutions that are necessary to make things move forward and work.
The best solutions often involve multiple vendors. Look at the Tesla factory. Integrating their software and control systems into the larger manufacturing system, or even between different systems on a line, involves serious and talented programming — a process that everyone agrees needs to be simplified and made less costly.
ROS-like products are fine for development and simulation, and because they are prevalent in most of academia, new hires are familiar with what it does and how it works. But that’s when those new hires are confronted with the complexities of proprietary software and teaching pendants. I’ve heard it said that it’s like going back to the mainframe era of computing. At the least, it involves learning old-style coding languages.
Most of the big robot manufacturers are beginning to make an effort to improve their training and programming methods, to get them onto more practical tablets, and to provide offline simulation. But the going is slow, hence the argument for open source rages on. The truth appears to be in the middle: older systems need to be updated and yet still retain their proprietary nature. Mix and match between vendors is a fact of life and needs to be accommodated either by the use of ROS-Industrial or by the robot manufacturers themselves in the form of a new set of standards and interfaces.
On April 10th, Robot Block Party 2013 took place right after We Robot conference.
Of course, I had an extra day to spend at Stanford University after the conference and couldn’t miss out on the event.
The fun really began when I got there. I was greeted by a gigantic inflatable Keepon, followed by booth after booth of robots. Among them were Puzzlebox, a robot controlled using EEG, PR2 from Willow Garage, and a self-driving car demonstrating LIDAR technology from Velodyne. With a lot of help from Dr. Peter Asaro, an expert in roboethics and professor at The New School, and my labmate Mr. Ergun Calisgan from the CARIS lab (University of British Columbia) I captured some of the highlights from Robot Block Party on video.
“Moore’s Law has never moved faster than is moving inside the phone you’ve already got in your pocket. The pace of development and the price performance curve is moving faster in smartphones than it’s ever moved in history and we’re taking advantage by drafting off this momentum and by employing military-grade technologies at toy prices,” said Chris Anderson at last weekend’s Engadget Expand event at Fort Mason, San Francisco.
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.
One of the most iconic and influential robotics companies has just let staff know that Willow Garage will be making big changes in the next few months:
Willow Garage has decided to enter the world of commercial opportunities with an eye to becoming a self-sustaining company. This is an important change to our funding model.
On the surface this is sad news, and I hope that we see a lot of attention given to the huge contribution that Willow Garage has made to robotics over their short but significant history.