Free the Robots! Open Source Robotics Software Opens Floodgates to DIYers

by Gary Rainville

From Google’s self-driving cars to IBM Watson’s talking, dancing Connie, some of the world’s biggest companies are in hot pursuit of robots.

But there’s a huge population of do-it-yourselfers designing robots for the fun of it, toiling away on workbenches and sharing their unique creations online. At the GPU Technology Conference, the Open Source Robotics Foundation shared how it’s developing open source software to further seed these grassroots efforts.

Brian Gerkey wrote the book on programming with ROS.

The foundation’s Robot Operating System, or ROS, powers an ever-growing array of walking, talking, rolling, flying inventions.

“All the action today is in software,” said Brian Gerkey, the foundation’s CEO and founder, during a well-attended GTC session Thursday.

Open Platform for Robotics Developers

Just four years old, the foundation has quickly found an audience. Gerkey said its website receives 100,000 unique visitors each month.

It’s easy to understand why. Until now, the robotics world has lacked one key element: a standard technology platform that would enable developers to piggyback on each other’s work and spread their innovations.

With ROS, they can share their efforts to configure and customize the open source software, or make use of the foundation’s GPU-accelerated Gazebo robotics simulation engine for testing and debugging. The sharing goes beyond code: the fast-growing number of DIY robot videos on YouTube inspires more people to dive into robotics, and inevitably leads to more software.

“Lots of the robotics community is releasing code into open source so others can work on and refine it,” said Gerkey.

ROS – Open Source Robotics Software

ROS includes all the fundamental pieces of software needed to bring a robot to life. It includes flexible middleware, drivers for a wide range of commonly used robot hardware, and a set of developer tools.

And it’s not just DIY roboticists who are using it. For instance, NASA’s R5 robot runs on ROS, and is supplemented with CUDA-accelerated algorithms for analyzing data. And the majority of teams participating in the latest DARPA Robotics Challenge used ROS.

Robot racecar from MIT’s Sertac Karaman.

At MIT, ROS is powering a one-tenth scale remote-control car that features an onboard Jetson Tegra K1 and is used to teach students how to design robot control systems.

Despite all the brainpower behind the foundation’s software, Gerkey admits his organization is “uniquely positioned to not understand applications.” And he’s fine with that. With the open ROS platform, an ever growing roboticist community can gin up an amazing array of inventions.