Open-source robotic software platform, ROS-Industrial, augments efficiency, reach

ROS-Industrial, a group that provides open-source robotic software, expanded its influence in 2014 through companies and developers in the United States and Europe. The Linux-based software expects to expand to Microsoft platforms in 2015 and participate in an Amazon robotic picking challenge in May.

By Chris Vavra January 6, 2015

ROS-Industrial (ROS-I) is an open-source industrial robotic software and working group established by Southwest Research Institute (SwRI). ROS, which stands for robotic operating system, is becoming more and more common for manufacturing companies looking to improve efficiency on the plant floor from a worker and a technological standpoint. Plans for 2015 include expansion to Microsoft software from its Linux beginnings and participation in the Amazon Picking Challenge in May.

ROS-I seeks to educate workers and companies on the benefits and improvements ROS can provide through workshops, seminars, tutorials, and conferences. Throughout 2014, ROS-I hosted or attended 10 events in the United States and Europe with the aim of educating companies and workers. The presentations focused on the state of the manufacturing and robotic industry, and also included seminars and tutorials on the latest technological and software developments.

The organization’s efforts in spreading the word have led to significant growth: in 2014 both the ROS-I developers’ group and the Consortium Americas membership nearly doubled in size, to 341 and 24 members, respectively. The group also presented at the ROSCon developer conference in Chicago in September 2014, on technical subjects such as development of dual-arm mobile manipulation systems for assembly tasks and European robotic challenges.

Spreading the word in Europe, in particular, became a major focus for the organization as the group realized that there is a desire to increase efficiency and productivity through collaboration.

"We quickly saw that there was a large development community in Europe, and realized the benefits of international collaboration," said Paul Hvass, the ROS-Industrial Consortium (RIC) Americas program manager at SwRI. "This led to the establishment of ROS-Industrial Consortium Europe. We’ve noticed that there are many more R&D organizations in Europe, both at manufacturers and institutions, working on next-generation automation solutions."

In June 2014, Fraunhofer IPA hosted the ROS-Industrial Conference and Consortium Europe kick-off in Stuttgart, Germany, to bring together academic and industry representatives to exchange experiences on application development with ROS and clarify the needs of industry. The conference had a particular focus on research and industrial developers for small- and medium-sized companies as well as R&D divisions for companies in automation, logistics, and production. 

Open-source robotics, Europe

Fraunhofer IPA, which was established in July 2014 as the ROS-Industrial Consortium Americas’ sister organization in Europe, indicated that companies and end users in Europe are taking the open-source framework more and more seriously. While some large European companies like BMW and Siemens are already members, many companies are still in the process of deciding how to position themselves toward open-source technologies. Some robot manufacturers, they said, are reluctant to embrace ROS-I because they have spent their own resources on integrating and programming robots.

"We’ve spent and will continue to spend considerable energy to educate people about the advantages of using free and open tools for their software development efforts," Hvass said.

Fraunhofer IPA is also getting some help from the European Union, which is sponsoring several initiatives designed to drive innovation for industrial robotics. The U.S. has provided some support to the SwRI-led ROS-I effort through the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), but the overall level of federal government support for applied research in robotics, Hvass said, is modest when compared with the EU. 

Microsoft-based robotic software

The ROS-I community is eagerly awaiting the release of ROS 2.0 in May 2015, which will ease cross-platform deployments. ROS currently runs and is designed for Ubuntu Linux. Hvass noted that they had heard from commercial consortium members that a Windows version is important for acceptance within existing manufacturing automation environments.

"One of the strengths of ROS has been its adoption of a loosely guided development model where any person or group can contribute new capabilities as they see fit for their needs," Hvass said.

This is especially important, Hvass noted, given that there has been a general trend away from platform-specific technologies and more toward service-oriented architectures (SOA) using standard communication protocols. This, in turn, pushes developers toward network-based tools that will run on any platform whether they are embedded systems or in the cloud.

Pick-and-place contest

The ROS-I community also will get a chance to demonstrate its software capabilities for the Amazon Picking Challenge, which is being held at ICRA 2015 in May. The purpose of the competition is to challenge entrants to build their own robot hardware and software that can be presented with a stationary lightly populated inventory shelf and be asked to pick a subset of the products and put them on a table. The challenge combines object recognition, pose recognition, grasp planning, compliant manipulation, motion planning, task planning, task execution, and error detection and recovery and attempt to pick items from shelves.

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

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Author Bio: Chris Vavra is senior editor for WTWH Media LLC.