Robots can be about as complex a machine as you’re ever likely to encounter, but roboticists spend a lot of time solving mundane problems that have already been solved countless times by other robot makers. A recent New Scientist article documents the efforts of researchers around the globe that have begun to collaborate on the Robot Operating System (ROS), which they hope will provide a common platform for robot research, letting its users concentrate on advancing the state of the art instead of reinventing the wheel.Bringing robotics to this point won’t be easy, though. “Robotics is at the stage where personal computing was about 30 years ago,” says Chad Jenkins of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. Like the home-brew computers of the late 70s and early 80s, robots used for research today often have a unique operating system (OS). “But at some point we have to come together to use the same resources,” says Jenkins.
Teams at Stanford University, MIT, and the Technical University of Munich, Germany are behind the effort.
ROS, which unsurprisingly is open source software, is a pretty good textbook example of a perfect arena for open source. Any benefit that a robot maker might reap from keeping some aspect of their operating software secret would seem to be vastly outweighed by the benefit of pooling resources with other researchers and spreading out the testing and debugging among the group, particularly for the features that are common to almost all advanced robots and don’t confer a particular competitive advantage.
That’s not to say that a commercial robotics OS is out of the question. Microsoft has created a Robotics Developer Center with toolkits for robot developers. To the extent that robot OSes are solving problems that are common with other, more mainstream computing devices that Microsoft already supports, this is likely to be a good starting point as well. I would suspect, however, that as robot technology advances, it may prove to be too small of a niche for a large company like Microsoft to be able to handle in-house.
Ultimately, whether the robot world rallies around an open source OS or a commercial OS will depend on the vibrancy of the developer community and the availability of “apps” that underlie more advanced capabilities.