The Future of Personal Robotics: Open Source

This week marks the third anniversary of ROS (Robot Operating System), an open-source software platform for the robotics industry developed by Stanford and Silicon Valley robotics research lab Willow Garage. In that short time, ROS has skyrocketed in popularity. Robot hardware manufacturers, commercial research labs, and software companies are all adopting the platform. And ROS is just getting started.

"We set out at the beginning with a commitment to open source," says Steve Cousins, President and CEO of Willow Garage. "In order to get an industry going in personal robotics, it's going to take the ability for a lot of people to experiment. An open platform makes it easy for people to tinker and innovate."

ROS has succeeded beyond Willow Garage's wildest dreams. There are more than 50 public ROS repositories featuring open-source libraries and tools, more than 1,600 software packages, and at least 50 robots around the world using the platform, including underwater vehicles, boats, space rovers, lawnmowers, helicopters, cars, indoor robots, outdoor robots, and more (the Anybots QB robot recently covered by Fast Company doesn't use ROS, however).

The platform probably won't stop growing anytime soon. "When you're growing exponentially, the future is really hard to predict. One of the really powerful things about open source is that by giving up control, you allow the community to do much more than you could possibly do yourself," says Ken Conley, a senior software engineer at Willow Garage.

Willow Garage does have one big hope for ROS: that it will take on a life of its own, outside of the nurturing Willow Garage environment. The company is in the beginning stages of developing an independent ROS Foundation inspired by the Mozilla FoundationApache Software Foundation, and the GNOME Foundation. "We're talking about this with a number of government agencies and robotics companies," Cousins says. "It will be an independent organization funded by the community, chartered with moving ROS forward."

Want to see ROS-powered robots in action? Check out the clip below.

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