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Wednesday November 26th 2014

Open Source Robotics Platforms are Flourishing–As They Should

All around the world, open source robotics efforts are maturing, to the point where an open source robot surgeon might even save your life, and commercial companies are taking shape around open source robot platforms. In the past week, there have been some high-profile debates about whether open source robotics software platforms are necessarily better to pursue than proprietary ones.  There is a high level of disagreement on the issue.

We’ve covered open source robotics in previous posts, including herehere, and here, and we’ve covered the extraordinary open source robotics work going on over at Willow Garage a number of times. It is a project that originated at Stanford University. Robots being developed within it run the open source ROS (Robot Operating System) software platform, and are surprisingly capable. Now, more than 25 institutions are developing robotics applications on Willow Garage’s open platform. 

This week, in a post on Xconomy, Brian Gerkey, Willow Garage’s director of open source development argued that what open source robotics really needs is its own LAMP stack (a free open source software stack including Linux, Apache Server, MySQL, and PHP):  

"What we need is a LAMP stack for robotics. Before the LAMP stack, [Web developers] had to know everything about how to write an operating system and manage processes and write a file system and manage sockets and so on. The ability to come in with software engineering skills and an idea about how to use the Internet, and be off to the races—that is what enabled the Internet boom."

In other words, Gerkey wants to see an approachable platform that could mean "all you need to know is how to write code and what you want your robot to do."

Meanwhile, Colin Angle, co-founder and CEO of iRobot, has a completely opposing view. In a recent interview noted here, Angle said he thought that open source robotics "was dangerous to the industry and was fearful that it was also detrimental to the monetizing of the service robotics sector in particular."

That sounds like some of the early, off-the-mark criticisms of open source that came from companies like Microsoft. iRobot, of course, makes the Roomba floor vacuum robots, which sell for hundreds of dollars.  According to the Automaton blog:

"Angle suggested that Willow Garage’s approach of freely providing such a key component as the robotic operating system — and the extensive libraries that go with ROS, not to mention its source code — was tantamount to letting the biggest consumer electronics giants gobble up any mass market applications and re-market them globally at low cost because they already have (or could easily reverse-engineer) the hardware, could produce it cheaply, the operating system was free courtesy of ROS, and the only real cost was the acquisition of the application."

Willow Garage’s open source approach to robot software has worked reasonably well so far. There are institutions all around the world working with and forking ROS for their own robotics efforts, and there is no clear standard among robotics operating systems. The last thing that the field of robotics needs now is to have open source efforts squelched.

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