AAC's Chantelle Dubois spoke with Brian Gerkey of Open Robotics to talk about the many (and sometimes surprising) applications of robotics, how ROS made it to space, and the open source revolution.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the inception of the Robotic Operating System (ROS) — an open source robotics platform being used around the world in research, industrial, and recreational settings. The premise of ROS is simple: to simplify and standardize robotic programming, enabling faster development of robotic systems through the spirit of open source collaboration.

On September 21st and 22nd, the Open Robotics (formerly the Open Source Robotics Foundation) will convene for the fifth time for ROSCon 2017. Delegates ranging from students, researchers, industry representatives, and hobbyists/enthusiasts will meet, discuss, and present on a range of topics related to the development of ROS. Even though ROSCon is still a relatively young event, every year it has continued to grow in both number of attendees and sponsors.

In anticipation of ROSCon 2017, All About Circuits had a chance to speak with CEO of the Open Source Robotics Foundation, Brian Gerkey, about ROS, ROSCon, and the future of robotics.

##### Brian Gerkey, CEO of OSRF. Image courtesy of Open Robotics.

AAC: ROS was established in 2007. Since then, there have been advances and changes in technology, especially within the robotics domain. Is there is anything particularly surprising with how ROS has evolved with new changes in technology since it was established?

Brian Gerkey: We started working on ROS in late 2007. I joined the project when I joined Willow Garage in early 2008, and then really worked on it with the core development team at Willow for about two years until we hit critical mass. That was at about the time we released the PR2 which was a robot we were working on at Willow.

I’d say two things surprised me along the way: one, even before we really had anything like a finished system—and certainly before the PR2 was ready, which was really the robot we were building ROS for—people all over the world were picking it up and using it. So we were getting comments, suggested changes, and bug reports from labs all over the world where people were picking up what we still thought was this highly experimental speculative system we were building, and using it in earnest in their labs, which was really motivating, but surprising. We didn’t know it would catch on so quickly in the research community.

##### NASA's Robonaut2. Image courtesy of NASA.

AAC: What has been your motivation to foster the development of open source and collaborative software?

BG: Motivation is a funny thing. For me, personally, I got into this work when I was in graduate school at USC in the late 90s. I was in a robotics lab and, just like any PhD student in computer science, I was meant to be working on scientific problems and developing a project to write a dissertation around.

What I found at the time was that there wasn’t really software infrastructure that you really needed to have in place in order to do the science we were supposed to be doing. What was happening was that, in every lab, somebody was taking on the task of writing the tools. Everything from device drivers to graphical interfaces—all the stuff you need to have in place before you can do any useful work. So with a couple of colleagues in the lab, we started something that became the Player Stage Project, which is a set of open source tools for robot programming and simulation. That actually spawned the Gazebo simulator, which we still develop here.

We put it up on Sourceforge, people started using it, and I found that so much more gratifying personally. To put software out there and to see people use it [was more gratifying] than what I was supposed to be doing, which was answering important scientific questions and writing papers. I did that too, but I personally get more satisfaction by putting these platforms out there and seeing what people do with them.

AAC: Looking at the ROSCon program for 2017, there is quite a variety of presentations and discussions on ROS applications and development. Is there anything particularly new you are seeing this year, perhaps a surprising new trend, that stands out from the previous ROSCon?

BG: The first trend I would call out is the automotive development. The first talk this year will be from Shinpei Kato about the Autoware system that he and his team have developed in Japan—this is a fully ROS-based autonomous driving stack. You can take the software, put it on your car that’s been outfitted to drive by wire with the appropriate sensors, and, in a relatively short period of time, arrive at a fairly capable autonomous vehicle. This isn't a product you can sell or that has been certified in any way, but it's a starting point for whatever it is you are doing with autonomous driving. That’s all open source. Other than that talk, we have one from Daimler AG, and some from a group in Switzerland [ETH Zurich and AMZ] talking about the autonomous car work they are doing.

Otherwise, I'd say that there is a lot of attention these days paid to simulation. Developing robotics applications is hard because it has all the elements of software problems, but you are also dealing with the physical world. You're also often developing the software at the same time that you are developing the hardware. Having access to a good simulator is really important in being able to develop systems efficiently. There will be a talk from us about what we did with the NASA Space Robotics Challenge, which is a class of challenges using NASA’s Valkyrie or R5 robot, [and there is also] Greg Dudek and his group form McGill University using Gazebo to simulate an underwater robot that they do experiments with.

[There is also a presentation] from our group on using Gazebo for vehicle-city simulation. So, that’s kind of a crossover point where it’s one of the applications of simulation specifically in the automotive domain, where I think we’re going to need a lot of really good simulation technology to convince ourselves that the autonomous car products that are being built are actually safe enough to use.

##### The PR2 robot in a Gazebo simulation. Image courtesy of ROS.

Let me call out one other trend: security. That’s something that historically we did not pay a lot of attention to. In fact, we designed ROS in the beginning with explicitly no security features and [did not incorporate] security features in ROS because we are not security experts—rather you need to know how to deploy the system in a secure environment. You need to use a VPN, physical security, and things like that.

But now that ROS is being rolled out into products and being used in earnest in a bunch of government programs, there is much greater attention being paid to security. So, we are having two talks this year, one from our group one form another group, on different ways to add security features to ROS so that you can get more of a layered approach that is more appropriate for being used in a fielded system.

AAC: Is it still a principle in ROS 2.0 that security is on the user and not on the development of ROS?

BG: No, that’s actually something that we changed fundamentally in ROS 2.0. I mentioned earlier that ROS 2.0 is based on the industrial middleware standard called DDS. That standard has an extension that was ratified last year called DDS Security, and it specifies how to do on the wire security in everything from authentication to encryption, up to access control and a couple of other features. So, that’s something that we are explicitly leveraging in ROS 2.0.

At some level, it is still up to the user. You have to decide how to use it, you have to know how to configure it, and you have to understand it well enough to use it in a reliable way. But now it is built in from the ground up as opposed to being put in afterwards, which is all we could do with ROS 1.0 as it exists today. Since it is 10-year-old code, there are only so many intrusive changes that you can reasonably make.

AAC: Are there any misconceptions or inaccuracies about ROS that keep coming up that you want to correct?

BG: I would say that the biggest [misconception] is that ROS is not appropriate for use in products, and that can be trivially proven false just by example. You can look at Blue River Technologies, then you’ve got companies like Fetch, Clearpath, Locust, Six River, and Savios that are all selling or leasing ROS based products that deliver in a variety of environments. And there are plenty of other examples out there. That’s probably the biggest one I would want to challenge.

Another [misconception] is that you can’t [achieve] real-time control with ROS. It gets a little more technical, and even that is not strictly true. With ROS 1.0 as it exists today, there are plenty of examples of mixing ROS with a real-time safe system. It’s a little harder than it needs to be—but even way back in the days of when we were building the PR2, it had a real-time control component to it which runs reliably at 1 KHz in order to [achieve] stable control of the entire mechanism. And that we built with a bunch of infrastructure so, you have to use different APIs but it mixes well with the ROS system. So that is something that absolutely can be done, and lots of groups do it, but often people look at it and say you can’t do real time and that’s not true.

AAC: There are companies using open source platforms, like ROS, in their products. What are your thoughts on the monetization of ROS and how do you think open source platforms like ROS and intellectual property protection can co-exist?

BG: Those are a good couple of questions. So, first of all, how can open source and intellectual property protection coexist—I think that’s easy. We choose to license our software under BSD license [for previous code], and these days for new code we use the Apache 2 license. Those are licenses that are both very clear in what they allow and what they do not allow. Some people, if they are not that well-informed about the nuances of open source, they [might believe they] can’t use open source in their products because then they’ll have to give away their IP, and that’s just not true at all. You can absolutely take the software we’re using, you can build it into your product, and you can sell it. And you don’t owe us anything and you don’t have to change anything about your IP.

So, I think that there is ongoing education that needs to be done so that people understand that there are open source licenses—in fact, the vast majority of open source licenses—permit that kind of use.

Monetization is a little more complicated. Certainly, there are companies out there that are monetizing applications and products that are based on ROS, so they are building products and services and selling them, and that’s a pretty well-understood path forward.

AAC: What do you think the future of robotics will be—particularly open source robotics?

BG: I think that the future of robotics is very bright. I think we’re finally at the point where just around the corner we are going to see robots and robotic technology deployed widely.

People have been using robots in automotive factories since the 60s, but it’s been a long time coming for us to actually experience robots in our daily lives. I think we are finally just about there. I think we’ve cracked enough of the hard algorithmic problems to do with localization and navigation. We’re still working on manipulation but we’ll get there.

Along the way, we’ve gotten enough advances in the sensors and actuator design, as well as all the supporting open source software, that now it’s actually straightforward to start a company, design a product, and get it out on the market in relatively short order. I think that is encouraging more people to come into the field.

Like I said earlier, we never know who is using our tools or who is using other open source system but I think it is fair to say that the vast majority of the people active in this field right now are using ROS and/or Gazebo in some way as part of their development process. So, I think we are going to see more and more of ROS-based products, and more and more Gazebo simulation software.

Thank you for your time, Brian!