Can Willow Garage’s “Linux for Robots” Spur Internet-Scale Growth?

3/29/12Follow @wroush

Robot builders have a lot to learn from Internet entrepreneurs.

That’s one of the main arguments you’ll hear from the engineers at Willow Garage, a unique startup in Menlo Park, CA, that’s developing hardware and software for a new generation of personal robots. You can’t name a single Internet company, they say, that would have succeeded if it had been forced to recreate all the basic tools underlying the Web, from the Linux operating system to the Apache HTTP server to the MySQL database system to the Python, Perl, and PHP programming languages—the ingredients of the so-called LAMP stack. Yet most robot companies still try to reinvent the wheel every time, building robots that require putting together a tangled mess of proprietary, one-off software systems.

Which is exactly why robots are, for the most part, stuck on factory floors welding car parts rather than assisting in our homes, offices, hospitals, and other settings, argues Brian Gerkey, Willow Garage’s director of open source development.

“What we need is a LAMP stack for robotics,” Gerkey says. “Before the LAMP stack, [Web developers] had to know everything about how to write an operating system and manage processes and write a file system and manage sockets and so on. The ability to come in with software engineering skills and an idea about how to use the Internet, and be off to the races—that is what enabled the Internet boom.”

In the same way, Gerkey explains, today’s roboticists “have to come at the problem with a very deep expertise in all aspects of robotics, from state estimation to planning to perception, which automatically limits the number of people capable of building new things. But by providing a basic toolset analogous to the LAMP stack, we can get to a point where all you need to know is how to write code and what you want your robot to do.”

That point still seems quite a ways off—and if you walk into Willow Garage, the most visible product is actually not a piece of software but a humanoid robot called PR2. It’s almost six feet tall and has stereo vision, a wheeled base, and a pair of arms with hand-like grippers; imagine a cross between Wall-E and the “Lost in Space” robot, and you’ll have a good picture.

Academic roboticists love PR2′s modular, extensible design. But it was never intended as a mass-market product—as its $400,000 price tag attests. Only in the last six months, says president and CEO Steve Cousins, has the company started selling more PR2s than it gives away. The real show at Willow Garage, it turns out, is the software running under PR2′s hood.

Called the Robot Operating System, or ROS, it’s a collection of algorithms that handle standard tasks required of every mobile robot—things like making sense of a visual scene, or planning a path around obstacles. Unlike PR2, ROS is completely free, and is already being adapted by hundreds of robotics labs and companies around the world. It’s spreading so fast that Cousins says Willow Garage is considering creating a non-profit foundation, similar to the Apache Software Foundation, that could organize the developer community, collect donations, and act as an independent steward and champion for the software.

In Willow Garage’s world, PR2 is just a big, rolling demo. If ROS is like the LAMP stack, then PR2 is like a high-end blade server from IBM or HP—the reference hardware that shows what can be done with the software and inspires innovators outside the company to program and build their own new kinds of robots.

“PR2 is not going to be the thing that makes Willow Garage successful in the long term,” says Cousins, who previously led research projects in human-computer interactions at Xerox PARC and IBM’s Almaden Research Center. “It is a catalyst. It helps researchers and the academic community solve the problems that need to be solved to get this industry created. PR2 and ROS together help them solve those problems faster and more efficiently.”

[I sought to learn more about Willow Garage recently as part of my preparation for the next big Xconomy San Francisco event. Both Cousins and Gerkey will be on stage at The Future of Robotics in Silicon Valley, a special Xconomy forum planned for May 3.]

You can trace the beginnings of Willow Garage’s Internet-inspired philosophy to Scott Hassan, the dot-com tycoon who founded the company in 2006 and is still its main financial backer. As a computer-science doctoral student at Stanford, Hassan helped Larry Page and Sergey Brin build the first version of Google, which earned him … Next Page »

Wade Roush is Xconomy's chief correspondent and editor of Xconomy San Francisco. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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