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An open-source robotics OS is moving from the lab to farms and even into space

Tim Hornyak | June 9, 2014
Five years ago, a robot slowly trundled around a Californian office doing things like opening doors and using electrical sockets.

"The impressive thing about ROS was it allowed only a few engineers to write an entire system and receive our first check for service in only a few months," Willy Pell, a senior systems engineer at Blue River, wrote in an email.

ROS is also being used in a worldwide fleet of hundreds of cars that gather data for Nokia's Here mapping apps. The cars are equipped with rooftop Velodyne LIDAR sensors, GPS and cameras, and data from them must be processed before storage. That's where ROS comes in.

"The system of sensors and computers means the software that's needed is very like that which is used to create robots," Here engineer Michael Prados said recently in a blog post.

Mapping the outside world is a long way from ROS's beginnings in Willow Garage.

"In addition to the variety of platforms, we've seen ROS come to offer a set of powerful algorithms that make programming robots easier, including perception, planning, control and simulation," Brian Gerkey, CEO of the Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF) and a former director at Willow Garage, wrote in an email.

The OSRF has been promoting ROS as well as Gazebo, an open-source 3D software program that allows engineers to simulate robots and their sensors before building them.

One of ROS's most far-flung deployments began in April when the International Space Station received a crucial component for its Robonaut 2 humanoid robot, which was developed by NASA. Robonaut's flexible legs arrived aboard a Space X Dragon spacecraft as part of a resupply mission to the station.

The legs will allow Robonaut to become a mobile system and reposition itself in the station, where it will gradually take on maintenance chores. ROS is being used in the control system for the legs of the robot, which will eventually work outside the station as well, performing tasks in the vacuum of space.

"We've seen ROS used on pretty much every kind of robot that you can imagine, wheels to legs, ground to air to water and beyond," Gerkey wrote.

"Five years ago, you would have spent months or even years writing the code to let your new robot navigate safely; now it's a matter of installing some open source tools and tweaking some configuration files."

 

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