While ROS may be similar to some earlier programming languages in its openness and accessibility to researchers, Google’s 10 years of ongoing support may be credited with ROS surviving a crucial incubation period. Unlike its predecessors, ROS finally bridged and leveraged a wide variety of parallel open-source efforts, including OpenCV, PointCloudLibrary, Open Dynamics Engine, Gazebo, and Eigen. ROS also features a very permissive license (BSD) that allows for reuse in commercial and closed-source products. The result: the ROS ecosystem now consists of tens of thousands of users worldwide, working in domains ranging from tabletop hobby projects to large industrial automation systems.
Overcoming the Tower of Babel Curse
As a robotics researcher and an educator, I have seen the power of ROS firsthand and witnessed how giving programmers the ability to reuse code has dramatically accelerated the pace of innovation. For my students, ROS has streamlined the process of building robots from start to finish. Highly sophisticated robotic “packages” can now be integrated like LEGO blocks, making it easier than ever to build on some of the best existing software from the world’s top robotics experts.
In 2013, DARPA selected ROS and its simulation environment, Gazebo, as the standard programming language for its Virtual Robotics Challenge, a university-level team competition from which six finalists are chosen to battle head-on to build the most innovative robots across a wide variety of mechanical designs. DARPA has continued to choose ROS and Gazebo every year since, including for its upcoming Subterranean Challenge. And DARPA isn’t alone in its decision to adopt ROS as the standard. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is currently offering its second Agile Robotics for Industrial Automation competition using ROS and Gazebo. At these competitions and in commercial applications across the industry, ROS is being used to develop every sort of robot. Tomorrow’s legged robots, flying and crawling robots, and robots performing fulfillment-center type operations are all being developed using the power of ROS, and they’re being designed, built, and delivered faster than ever before.
ROS and the future of robotics
I have been teaching ROS at Case Western Reserve University since its earliest releases, and the value of this standardized language for the future of robotics has never been more evident. Using the ROS framework, it is now possible to turn programming neophytes into productive developers in a single semester. It’s a dramatic shift from the days when becoming a top-notch programmer took years of study. As these students enter the workforce, they are finding their ROS skills to be highly attractive to their future employers—robotics companies large and small who are working to create the next generation of robots at a fast and furious pace.
The robotics revolution is here, and I’m excited to be part of it. From my own observations, I am convinced that ROS is playing a key role in the current resurgence of robotics. The barrier to entry for robot start-ups has been lowered. Progress in building smarter, more capable robots has accelerated dramatically. Research efforts around the world are being integrated to build systems that are more sophisticated than any one individual or group could have achieved independently in a lifetime. The Tower of Babel curse has been lifted once and for all.
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