Personal Robots on the Horizon: The Robot Operating System

We are over in Pittsburgh for Ubicomp 2012, kicking off the 5 day conference is Steve Cousins, President and CEO of Willow Garage, a robotics company that acts a a catalyst to create a new industry in personal robotics by creating open source software and state-of-the-art robot hardware.

Robots are not close to being ubiquitous, but we are getting closer to a day when personal robots will be commonplace. Robotic technologies, with either sensing or actuation, are rapidly being adopted as advances in computation allow us to do more with them. Robots are following a path that parallels that of computing. Mainframe computers and industrial robot arms are both large, expensive devices that operate behind locked doors on behalf of an organization. Like personal computers, personal robots are used directly by individuals to increase their effectiveness in whatever they do.

Steve notes that Personal Robotics is a new industry powered by open source software with off the shelf components.

The Person Robot 1 in 2007 provided a first glimpse of home personal robots:


Moving on to the Person Robot 2 was introduced in 2010, small scale and high cost but 40 of the units are currently in use in a range of applications, the progress from 1-2 points to the developments most notably version 2 is autonomous:


The main issue is software rather than hardware, core to this is the development of a Robot Operating System (ROS). Below is the Turtlebot, basically a Roomba linked to a Kinect and running ROS, we really like this one:


As Steve notes these developments prompt thoughts of the forthcoming film Robot and Frank:


In the near future being able to ‘manipulate the world’ from a distance – ie the PR1 will be more common, cost is still an issue but smaller off the shelf hardware, combined with ROS and open source is bringing personal robots into the foreseeable tech horizon.