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The Robot Operating System Initiative Reinvigorates Robotic Manufacturing and Research
A common framework to pave the way for the future of robotics
By Henry Lenard


Inviting researchers and manufacturers both large and small to “help build the road map for the future of the industry”, Paul Evans of the San Antonio, TX-based Southwest Research Institute outlined the progress of the industrial Robot Operating System (ROS) at the RoboBusiness Leadership Summit in Pittsburgh.

“We want this to be end-user and industry-driven to set the priorities. There is a lot of critical mass and momentum behind ROS,” said Mr. Evans, director of the SRI’s Manufacturing Systems Department.

The major goal of the ROS open source project is to develop software that provides a common framework for such robotic applications as two- and three-dimensional perception, advanced path planning and collision avoidance, and pick-and-place functions in unstructured and fluid environments.

Mr. Evans said that the research robotics challenge has long been that software is continually being “reinvented”, with little continuity and a short lifespan, making it difficult to compare results. What was needed was a place to keep robotics software for reuse across different applications.

To that end, earlier this year, an effort headed by Menlo Park, CA-based robotics software developer Willow Garage led to the creation of the Open Source Robotics Foundation, an independent, non-profit organization that is supported by a growing number of members of the global robotics community.

According to Mr. Evans, the OSR has become a repository for robotics software, resulting in a reduction in integration costs through standardized interfaces. This is allowing for new industrial applications that were once thought of as cost prohibitive, such as bin picking, fixtureless assembly, mobile manipulation and sorting operations.

As an example, Mr. Evans used automated industrial painting, which faces the challenge of different parts and places on a conveyor line. Through ROS, path, gripper and grasp planning can first be run in a visualization environment for analysis and modification, before moving to the factory floor for real-world application.

“We want this to be end-user and industry-driven to set the priorities. There is a lot of critical mass and momentum behind ROS”Paul Evans, director of SwRI’s Manufacturing Systems Department

“This means lots of different things for lots of different robots,” Mr. Evans said. “ROS gives us the opportunity to reuse software across multiple platforms.” He added that it is not intended to replace off-the-shelf products that have already proven to be reliable technology.

Mr. Evans said ROS is reinvigorating manufacturing and industrial robot research, with manufacturers of both robots and their peripheral products coming aboard. ROS users already include such firms as Motoman, Adept, Universal, Robotiq and Beckhoff, soon to be joined by Fanuc, Kuka , ABB and others.

While larger manufacturers may want to retain proprietary rights to certain products, they still can contribute items to the ROS that doesn’t compromise their competitive advantage.

ROS also will allow systems integrators to do more advanced applications with their products.

Mr. Evans said the next step for the OSR Foundation is to prove the viability of installed systems with additional documentation and tutorials. Certified releases are also important for the ROS to gain wider acceptance with industry.


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About the author

Henry Lenard is the former editor-in-chief of the Pittsburgh Business Times and also was editor-in-chief of the former Industry.Net, a national network of regional publications covering manufacturing and computer technology.

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