In a 2008 Special Edition on Robotics for Scientific American Reports, this is what Bill Gates said.
"Imagine being present at the birth of a new industry. It is an industry based on groundbreaking new technologies, wherein a handful of well-established corporations sell highly specialized devices for business use, and a fast-growing number of start-up companies produce innovative toys, gadgets for hobbyists and other interesting niche products. But it is also a highly fragmented industry with few common standards or platforms. Projects are complex, progress is slow, and practical applications are relatively rare. In fact, for all the excitement and promise, no one can say with any certainty when -- or even if -- this industry will achieve critical mass. If it does, though, it may well change the world."
- Industrial robotics -- wherein a handful of well-established corporations sell highly specialized devices for business use. KUKA, FANUC, ABB and Yaskawa Motoman are amongst the mostly European and Japanese vendors providing handling, welding, cleanroom and assembling robots to the automobile, electronics and a few other industries. [According to the International Federation of Robotics in their annual World Industrial Robotics 2011 report, 118,337 robot units were sold in 2010 bringing the worldwide count of industrial robots in place and working to 1,035,000.]
- Service robotics -- faster-growing, with start-up companies and research labs producing innovative toys, gadgets for hobbyists and niche products for healthcare, dairy and agriculture, home and yard, space, defense, security and surveillance, and scientific research. [According to the International Federation of Robotics in their annual World Service Robotics 2011 report, 2,203,241 total service-sector robots were sold in 2010 composed of 13,741 field or high-end service robot units (of which 45% were for defense applications), about 1.4 million vacuum and floor cleaners, 36,500 lawn-mowing robots and 753,000 entertainment robots.]
- Industrial, commercial, healthcare and defense users do need security, reliability and efficiency and robot vendors have a vested interest in protecting their value-added software and hardware solutions.
- Academics and emerging businesses need openness and sharing so that re-invention isn't so prevalent as it has been in the past, and a full range of features and simulation capabilities are available so that far-ranging teams can collaborate on research projects using the same software.
Service robotics, on the other hand, are more mobile and self-contained, carrying with them (or communicating via wifi) their control system functions. They tend to be either mobile or portable and either loosely connected to the end-user's internal system or operate either autonomously or by modified remote control. Consequently, software like ROS brings lots of new capabilities which the original robot manufacturers are not able to do. Service robotic providers and research labs and facilities see the value and enjoy the benefits of shared open source development - they see it as good and useful for the overall robotics community -- yet most of the start-up companies lock down their finished products so that end users are assured that their products are safe, secure and reliable and the resulting software is reduced to enable the product to fully function but not be overloaded with unused functionality.
- Commoditization of hardware, hardware modules, and software.
- Markus Waibel, senior researcher at Zurich's ETH IDSC and participant in the EU's RoboEarth library-sharing project, feels that there is a good chance that we will see a split into companies specializing in robotics software vs. robotics hardware in the near future. This is evidenced by the current trend toward modularization and commoditization of robotic hardware. This happened in the early PC industry and there are obvious benefits. "Actually, I would go a step further and argue that this split has already happened in robotics research, with most research platforms at least supporting [Willow Garage's] open-source Robot Operating System (ROS)," said Waibel.
- Tom Wagner, CTO of iRobot, says: "Open interfaces; not open source. That way 3rd party equipment and payloads can work harmoniously with iRobot and other robot manufacturer's products while still providing a safe, secure and reliable product to the end user."
- Many needed solutions have already been solved yet are re-invented regularly within academia, partly because of cost, partly to aid in the learning process and sometimes out of just plain whimsy.
- Forums for bringing together scientists, engineers, users and executives, such as the recent RoboBusiness 2011 event in Boston, attempt to thwart reinvention by being small and personal so that people have the time to explain their problems and explore various solutions. At that Boston forum, by having the time to meet and explore, one Boston agricultural startup was able to solve a vexing navigation problem by purchasing a solution module from another startup that had already solved that exact problem.
- Industrial robot manufacturers are beginning to shift into the service sector. At a recent conference in San Francisco, KUKA, a large industrial robot manufacturer, announced that they were proceeding along a path outlined in an internal roadmap to enter the service robotics business. Although no other industrial vendor has indicated similar intentions, the progression to enlarge their businesses by adapting their robots and robotic solutions into the service sector appears to be inevitable.
- SMBs (small and medium sized businesses) are seen as a major near-term market for robot expansion. This market needs easily trainable low-cost co-robots that are flexible and safe enough to handle multiple small-volume tasks alongside humans. This is the bread and butter application for SMBs. Incidentally, this is another example of robot manufacturers becoming commodity robot and module providers - in this case providing a large quantity of low-cost co-robots and letting the SME's provide their own customization and integration.
- Big consumer product companies such as Toyota, Samsung and others, have announced their intentions to enter the medical robotics and consumer healthcare marketplace in 2013 and 2014. This may have as much positive impact on the service robotics sector as Foxconn is having in the industrial market (see below).
- Foxconn entering the robotics manufacturing business with their own manufacturing and assembly factories as clients.
- They've announced a planned deployment of 1 million robots within 3-4 years.
- Little is known of the details of the types, quantities or activities of the robots nor of the 500,000 human laborers that will be displaced.
- The Cloud is being introduced into robotics as it is in other areas of business - a way to offload processing and data to a place better equipped to handle the high number of CPU cycles needed to process vision, recognition, communication and navigation, most often simultaneously.
It is into this fray -- this two-world ascendant industry of promise, fragmentation and complexity - that the question of whether a universal robotic control system is needed or not has been asked and not clearly answered.
There is an obvious and logical answer:
- Robot manufacturers will soon enable open-source systems such as Willow Garage's ROS to connect and front-end their proprietary internal operating system. Yaskawa Motoman has already done this.
- They will also enable an as-yet undeveloped universal interface so that using specialized devices and modules from various 3rd party vendors can occur.
- There won't be a commercial version of ROS nor a universal robotic operating system.
- There will, however, within academia and the emerging service robotics sector, be a greater dependence and use of ROS because, as Markus Waibel says, "There are obvious economies of scale benefits - just have a look at the ROS contributors list and it is very clear that even now no single robotics manufacturer can match this brainpower."
COMMENTARY: Robot Operating System (ROS) is a software framework for robot software development, providing operating system-like functionality on a heterogenous computer cluster. ROS was originally developed in 2007 under the name switchyard by the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory in support of the Stanford AI Robot (STAIR) project. As of 2008, development continues primarily at Willow Garage, a robotics research institute/incubator, with more than twenty institutions collaborating in a federated development model.
ROS provides standard operating system services such as hardware abstraction, low-level device control, implementation of commonly-used functionality, message-passing between processes, and package management. It is based on a graph architecture where processing takes place in nodes that may receive, post and multiplex sensor, control, state, planning, actuator and other messages. The library is geared toward a Unix-like system (Ubuntu Linux is listed as 'supported' while other variants such as Fedora and Mac OS X are considered 'experimental').
ROS has two basic "sides": The operating system side ros as described above and ros-pkg, a suite of user contributed packages (organized into sets called stacks) that implement functionality such as simultaneous localization and mapping, planning, perception, simulation etc.
ROS is released under the terms of the BSD license, and is open source software. It is free for commercial and research use. The ros-pkg contributed packages are licensed under a variety of open source licenses.
ROS probably has the best chance of becoming a quasi-universal open source standard robotic operating system, because of its roots in academia where a lot of today's robotic research and development is taking place.
ROS Applications areas include
- A master coordination node
- Publishing or subscribing to data streams: images, stereo, laser, control, actuator, contact ...
- Multiplexing information
- Node creation and destruction
- Nodes are seamlessly distributed, allowing distributed operation over multi-core, multi-processor, GPUs and clusters
- Parameter server
- Test systems
ROS Package application areas will include
- Object Identification
- Segmentation and recognition
- Face recognition
- Gesture recognition
- Motion tracking
- Motion understanding
- Structure from motion (SFM)
- Steteo vision: depth perception via two cameras
- Mobile robotics
But robotic interactions with the physical world still pose far more complex challenges -- and require more complex solutions -- than well-defined and abstract computer problems. This is where a lot of the serious robotic operating systems moonlighting or customization is occurring today.
Courtesy of an article dated December 5, 2011 appearing in Everything-Robotic by The Robot Report