6 takeaways from the ROS-I Conference

ROS

Around 150 attendees gathered in Germany to learn about new ROS developments in research and industry. (Source: Fraunhofer IPA)

Open-source software for robots is becoming increasingly widespread also in industry. For some companies, the Robot Operation System (ROS) is already a competitive and innovative factor. The ROS-Industrial (ROS-I) Conference in Stuttgart showed what developers and users are currently doing and why Amazon and Google are now leveraging ROS for their robotics efforts.

Interest in ROS has increased significantly in recent years. Developed in 2007, ROS initially became the de facto standard in research, but also for service robot technologies. With its range of basic but important functions for robots, it helped numerous start-ups to quickly implement their first developments with just a few resources and to place them on the market.

ROS offers components for manipulation, navigation and image processing, but also drivers, algorithms and diagnostic and development tools. These are freely available, manufacturer-independent, standardized and created in participative work. Once this modular components have been developed, they can be used several times, which makes the development and commissioning of robot systems more efficient and thus more economical. On the other hand, anyone can use the components as a basis for new or further development. Commercial use is already quite common and often includes both open source and closed source components.

The ROS-I initiative, which advocates the industrial use of ROS, has been in existence since 2013. It acts as an interface between the developer community and industrial partners and as an important networking function worldwide with its three consortia and 65 members. Fraunhofer IPA manages the European branch. In this capacity, the institute hosted a major ROS event for the sixth time in December 2018, which offered 27 presentations from research and industry to around 150 participants.

Presentations from the 2018 ROS-I Conference can be found here. The next training dates for ROS in Stuttgart, Germany, as part of the educational activities in the EU project ROSIN, are April 1-5 and June 24-28. You can register here.

The following six core messages can be derived from these presentations, reflecting trends, application highlights and challenges to be tackled with ROS.

Platforms, ecosystems, cloud technologies are the future

Henrik Christensen, Qualcomm Chancellor’s Chair of Robot Systems, UC San Diego and Director, Institute for Contextual Robotics, named three driving factors in his keynote about why robotic applications will increasingly no longer be isolated solutions. Instead, they will operate and share data in larger, networked structures or ecosystems. Factors include:

  • Increasing demand for flexibility in production
  • The aging world population combined with the desire for more automated services at home
  • Urbanization, which poses ever-growing challenges to logistics

Robots have to be cost-effective and robust in all contexts at the same time, which can only be achieved in the cloud. Integrating appropriate hardware into the system does not make sense e.g. for small household robots, or the systems become too expensive, e.g. autonomous cars.

Numerous companies, primarily from the USA and Asia, operate within these new ecosystems. They have changed their business model to no longer own things or technologies, but offer them as platform services. ROS can be a decisive factor in providing the necessary standardization for this development towards common platforms.

[Editor’s Note: Henrik Christensen is keynoting the Robotics Summit & Expo (June 5-6 in Boston, MA) that is produced by The Robot Report. Other keynotes include AWS Robotics, Microsoft, NVIDIA, the NSF and Qualcomm.]

IT giants see added benefit in ROS

Prominent examples of these developments are Amazon and Google, which also presented at the ROS-I Conference. Each presented a new platform in 2018 to enable the development of robots using ROS in the cloud. This commitment by companies whose core business is far from robotics also caused a sensation beyond the industry as a whole.

The AWS Robomaker platform offers a browser-based development environment and numerous cloud-based services such as speech and image recognition for robots or tools for machine learning and analysis. A simulation environment and fleet management capabilities are part of Robomaker as well. Google’s Cloud Robotics platform providing a ROS interface also addresses the growing need for solutions that are scalable, offer collaborative capabilities and behaviour, and provide robust change management and monitoring.

[Editor’s Note: Roger Barga, General Manager, AWS Robotics and Autonomous Services, Amazon Web Services, will deliver a keynote at the Robotics Summit & Expo called “The Role of the Cloud in the Future of Robotics” will discuss the role that cloud services will play in the future of robotics, allowing developers to partition functionality between their physical robot and the cloud, in particular compute intensive functionality such as machine learning and artificial intelligence.]

Successful applications of ROS in industry are increasing

An entire conference session was dedicated to the topic of applications with ROS. For example, the FZI Research Center for Information Technology in Germany and Opel presented an application in which a robot attaches a car door seal with around 35 metal pins. The application won the European robotics competition EuRoC. Although the application has not entered full production, Opel gave it a positive rating in terms of functional safety.

Other application examples included the cooperation between BMW and Microsoft and autonomous guided vehicles (AGV) from German AGV manufacturer E&K Automation. Fraunhofer IPA presented two applications with their navigation software for mobile robots. On the one hand, the IPA software runs with ROS modules on AGV from system integrator Bär Automation. These AGVs are used in automobile production to flexibly transport the car bodies from assembly station to assembly station. On the other hand, so-called “smart transportation robots” at the BMW Group plant in Regensburg navigate with the IPA software. Here, too, the aim was to enable very flexible navigation that also achieves an availability of 99 percent.

ROS

Fraunhofer IPA develops navigation software for mobile robots using ROS components. (Source: Fraunhofer IPA)

Easier system integration is necessary

Several speakers at the conference emphasized that system integration for ROS-based applications is still too complex and resource-intensive. Presentations by Acutronic Robotics, Denso, ABB, Bosch, Universal Robots, Fraunhofer IPA and others presented components or development platforms that should enable simpler, faster and reliable system integration.

Software must meet the highest requirements

In order to bring open-source software into industrial applications, it must be of high quality, especially for safety-critical applications. The European ROSIN research project, for example, is fostering software Quality Assurance measures among the ROS community. The project partners are also developing tooling for automatic code testing. Another tool is the HAROS framework (High Assurance ROS), which offers a ROS-specific code test. The aim is to find possible errors in the code at an early stage and thus save development time and costs.

Functionality and IT security are indispensable

The presentations and discussions repeatedly focused on security issues whose reliable solution is required in order to bring ROS-based applications into industrial use. One approach to this is the above-mentioned code testing. The Ubuntu Linux distribution, operated by Canonical, also offers security features important for ROS.

The presentation by Pilz, the German company for safety technologies, saw the topic of safety in an even larger context. Because the coming robots, be they service robots in the personal or commercial environment or industrial robots that are to work directly with humans, require a completely new strategy for the safety of the systems. Pilz is intensively dealing with this change and presented its own robot arm based on ROS components last year.

ROS

At Automatica 2018, Fraunhofer IPA presented a robotic cell with a Pilz robot arm based on ROS. (Source: Fraunhofer IPA)

It was also pointed out that it is very difficult to get safety approval with open-source components. One cannot yet assure individual software modules but only complete applications. That is why it is difficult to do modifications to an application with safety approval since the whole assurance process would have to be redone. The consideration of open source technologies in future security requirements is therefore desirable.

Public funding opportunities are numerous

Bringing ROS further into industrial applications is also the aim of several research projects for which companies can apply at EU or soon national level. The EU project ROSIN offers financial support for ROS software components as well as various further education measures and trainings for ROS (see below for the upcoming dates).

Furthermore, the EU project RobMoSys makes it possible to receive funding for participation in a model-based ecosystem for robot software. In the second half of 2019, the German research project SeRoNet (Service Robot Network) wants to make a call for funded participation public. The aim is to establish a platform that provides products and services for professional service robots and enables cooperation between hardware and software providers, system integrators and end users.

In short: there is a lot going on in the ROS environment.

About the Author

Thilo Zimmermann is Project Manager at the Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Engineering and Automation IPA. Zimmermann can be reached at [email protected]

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