Open-source robotic software expands capabilities, communications, international influence

Inside Machines: ROS-Industrial, an open-source factory automation software project, expanded its influence in 2015 as additional US and European organizations became more engaged. The ROS-I Consortium Americas, led by SwRI, along with the ROS-I Consortium Europe, led by sister organization Fraunhofer IPA, are planning to expand into robotic 3D printing and make inroads into Asia.


An automated parcel singulation system that uses ROS-Industrial (ROS-I) for object recognition began trials at an order-fulfillment warehouse in fall 2015. This program was a collaborative effort between ABB and the ROS-I team. The system will be appliedROS-Industrial (ROS-I) is an open-source industrial robotic software framework and working group established by Southwest Research Institute (SwRI). ROS-I extends ROS, which stands for Robot Operating System, and is becoming more common for manufacturing companies looking to improve efficiency on the plant floor from a worker and a technological standpoint. Advances in 2015 include significant progress in the expansion of communications bus support including Profinet, an industrial Ethernet protocol, and software to improve robotic motion on under-defined Cartesian trajectories needed for processes like painting, grinding, and arc welding. The ROS-I Consortium, which is currently based in the U.S. and in Europe, made big strides in 2015 and has even bigger plans for 2016.

Throughout 2015, ROS-I hosted or attended 18 events in the United States and Europe with the aim of educating companies and workers. Europe, in particular, has been a major focus for Fraunhofer IPA, which leads the ROS-Industrial Consortium Americas' sister Consortium in Europe. The group held meetings in Germany and Italy at universities and business expos throughout 2015 and has received a warm reception from growing companies.

"Small and medium enterprises in Europe seem to be a strong driver for technology innovation, especially in robotics, with larger enterprises taking a more conservative position." said Paul Hvass, the ROS-Industrial Consortium (RIC) Americas program manager at SwRI.

Mirko Bordignon, senior research scientist at Fraunhofer IPA, provided two examples of the different ways ROS-I is being implemented in Europe.

"Automated guided vehicles (AGVs), developed by Bär Automation GmbH in collaboration with Fraunhofer IPA, are deployed at a car manufacturing plant. The AGVs make use of ROS-I and are capable of autonomous navigation without tracks on the floor or reflectors on the walls," he said. "Companies like IT+Robotics srl, an Italian system integrator, are increasingly using ROS-I technology both to equip industrial automation components with more features (for instance, motion controllers which can be natively controlled through ROS messages) and to leverage the robotics-friendly ROS middleware when integrating different machines on production lines."

Hvass said the large-end users have been the strongest adopters for ROS-I in the U.S. System integrators have also shown growing interest while equipment manufacturers have been mixed in their response. "Many are supportive," Hvass said, "but some frequently used equipment software interfaces are supported only by the ROS-I user community; we continue to seek first-party support from equipment manufacturers."

While the business response has varied, there has been plenty of support from educational institutions on both sides of the pond. The University of Texas-Austin and University of Texas-Arlington and Rensslaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) are ROS-I Consortium members while Georgia Tech and the Italian Institute of Technology are ROS-I contributors.

ROS-Industrial is taking aim at another big and rapidly developing market in 2016: Asia. "We are in the process of identifying interested parties who would form RIC-Asia," Hvass said. "We have a tentative plan to meet in July 2016 for a workshop to evaluate interest and discover ROS-I activity that is otherwise unreported. We are seeking an organization that is a sister to SwRI and Fraunhofer: independent, applied R&D, with factory automation experience, and ROS experience." Hvass added that they have received inquiries from multiple parties in Asia who are interested in expanding the ROS-I Consortium to the Asian continent. 

Software developments and upgrades

One of the major activities in the broader ROS community in 2015 was the alpha release of the ROS 2.0 core from the Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF), which makes the core ROS software compatible with Apple, Linux, and Microsoft Windows, and which will give it a wider base and reach. Another big development that occurred in 2015 was making ROS-Industrial compatible with Profinet. This makes ROS-Industrial compatible with standard Ethernet features and giving it a wider reach for automation applications. Hvass said that this adds to the open-source ROS projects for industrial fieldbuses, including EtherNet/IP, EtherCAT, and CANopen.

"Taken together, these projects now provide ROS-Industrial developers multiple options for reading sensor data and controlling actuators on modern networks," Hvass said.

Hvass said that future developments in their Profinet project in 2016 will focus on creating interfaces for standard Ethernet devices. "ROS-Industrial will continue to broaden this support, but we feel that developers should now be able to find devices that support at least one of the existing options."

Another major development for ROS-Industrial in 2015 was Descartes, which is an ROS-Industrial project designed to perform automated path planning on under-defined Cartesian trajectories (e.g., processes like painting, grinding, and welding). Descartes is designed to use the desired Cartesian paths along with robot models to generate robot joint-trajectories that obey the parameters and constraints of a given process. In application, Descartes enables automated robot programming for a wide range of processes without explicit human involvement.

"We are extremely proud of our new motion planner, Descartes," Hvass said. "2015 saw the alpha release of Descartes for early use cases in heavy industries and aerospace for robotic routing and blending (Scan-N-Plan applications)." He added that ROS-I developers have made improvements in memory management that reduced its processing time by orders of magnitude since its alpha release in early 2015.

"While it is still not a real-time planner, it can solve complex 6 or 7 DOF collision-free trajectories with thousands of waypoints before you can get up to get a cup of coffee," Hvass said. 

2016: Better messaging, 3D printing

With the alpha release of ROS 2.0, Hvass said that ROS-Industrial is looking to adopt ROS 2.0 to take better advantage of the new DDS-based messaging capabilities, including real-time communication support. "I think that the real-time capabilities of ROS 2.0 will enable force- and torque-controlled interaction with the world that could make possible rapid advances in robotic assembly tasks and collaborative robotics."

Hvass said that they're also starting an initiative to develop tools for 3-D printing with robots, and ROS-Industrial wants support and collaboration to create these open-source capabilities. Hvass admits that it will be challenging because it demands some sophisticated software for capabilities such as process monitoring to optimize the as-built material properties, real-time path correction to cope with dynamics, and smart-planning algorithms.

The ROS-I Consortium Americas will hold their annual Member's Meeting in March in San Antonio, and the European Consortium will hold a its annual conference in June in Stuttgart. The ROS-I team will also be in attendance at a pair of shows at McCormick Place in Chicago in 2016: IMTS 2016 in September and Pack Expo International in November.

Chris Vavra, production editor, CFE Media, Control Engineering,

Key Concepts

  • ROS-Industrial (ROS-I) is an open-source industrial robotic software framework and working group for manufacturing companies looking to improve efficiency on the plant floor from a worker and a technological standpoint.
  • There are plans to expand the group's reach and influence in Asia, which has a growing robot industry and market.
  • ROS-I is also starting an initiative to develop tools for 3D printing with robots and is looking for support and collaboration to create these open-source capabilities.

Consider this

What applications would you like to see ROS-Industrial used for that haven't been developed yet?

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