Saturday, May 14, 2011

ROS Robotics Platform

Recently a robotics company called Willow Garage has caught my attention. They have developed three prototypes at this point, one of which I'd seen on various Discovery programs. The Texai robot is a "remote presence system," kind of like a mobile, remote controlled, teleconferencing system. Their PR2 robot is the latest and greatest, and their most ambitious project to date. Think Rosie the robot from the Jetsons cartoon. PR2 even looks something like Rosie, and the project strives to realize the promise of a home robot assistant with social skills. Then there's the robot I'm most excited about, and that's the Turtlebot. The Turtlebot is a development platform for creating knee to waist-high robots that can navigate a home environment. It uses a Microsoft Kinect system as its sensing suite, and a iRobot Create provides the mobility.

First off, it's great that this company is basically taking off-the-shelf components and combining them to quickly produce a fairly robust robotics system at low cost. I have been dreaming about the possibility of having a robot on the first floor of our house which I could access when I'm upstairs or in the basement to see what the dogs are up to, and keep an eye out for my wife coming home from work. It could be connected to a network of fixed sensors around the house to detect activity around the house and go to a nearby window to investigate and record. Maybe the next time someone tries to steal a bike off our porch we could catch them in the act. Or, when the UPS driver actually finds our house for a change we can get a text message that a package has arrived, including a picture out the window of the box. I'll be getting a Turtlebot and building the POLYRO project some point soon, I hope.

But I'm burying the lead, really, about what's so great about Willow Garage. Besides their hardware, what they will be known for will be development of the open source software called ROS, which stands for Robot Operating System, not surprisingly. It comes with libraries of code and applications of particular use to robotics, including visual object tracking and recognition, navigation and object avoidance, and hopefully one day even voice and speech recognition. As an open source project (and such a cool one at that) we can expect to see rapid development and I have every reason to believe it's getting in the game early enough that it could be the major player in home robotics software in the future.

I think it could even be useful to applications besides just mobile, home/office robotics hardware. Why not add a bunch of sensors and controllers to the house and use ROS to control the entire system as if it were a big immobile robot? It's fun to think about anyway.

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