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

3/29/12Follow @wroush

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another Willow Garage product, a squat little robot called TurtleBot. It’s a mashup of iRobot’s Create chassis, Microsoft’s Kinect sensor, and an Asus EeePC netbook.) Willow Garage puts no restrictions on the distribution of ROS, and Gerkey says he has no way of knowing exactly how many roboticists are using it. But he says there are 100 to 150 ROS code repositories around the world, containing at least 3,000 “packages” or user-contributed components that handle functions such as mapping, perception, or simulation.

In late May, Willow Garage and seven other companies will sponsor a two-day ROS developers’ conference called ROScon. It’ll be in St. Paul, MN, right after the IEEE’s International Conference on Robotics and Automation (ICRA), the world’s most important academic robotics conference. “That looks like it is going to be a big hit,” says Cousins. “We have sponsorship from a number of robotics companies, which is really exciting,” as it’s a display of industry solidarity around an emerging standard. The sponsors include Bosch, Clearpath Robotics, Heartland Robotics, Yaskawa, Coroware, Schunk, and Yujin Robot.

To make more room for collaboration, Willow Garage plans to cede stewardship of ROS to the community itself, in the form of a non-profit foundation. “The role of a ROS Foundation would be to champion the ROS project, including getting more developers, getting more users, running a blog, and highlighting interesting use cases or companies or research labs,” Gerkey says. “It would also act as a place that can take in funding from stakeholders, whether they are the research arm of a big company, or a smaller company that wants to see some targeted development, or government funding agencies.”

Willow Garage’s commercial status makes it tricky to handle such contributions or contracts right now, Cousins says. “We have always wanted ROS to be a community thing,” he says. “We are going to continue to support it, but we would like to open it up to a broader base of support, and there are a lot of people who would like to contribute but who don’t feel right sending their money to a for-profit company.”

Meanwhile, ROS is beginning to make its way out of pure research environments and into settings where robots are performing serious work. Cousins says Willow Garage invited manufacturing systems engineer at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, TX, to spent several months at Willow Garage last year. They were able to prove that ROS can be used to run robot arms used for cutting, welding, painting, packaging, assembly, and many other tasks. That was a bit of a surprise, since such arms, built by companies like Yaskawa’s Motoman Robotics in Miamisburgh OH and Adept Technologies in Pleasanton, CA, typically come with their own specialized control software. But it turns out that it’s not so hard to convert them to run on open-source code.

“This code, which is fundamental to what we are trying to do at the cutting edge of research, is all of a sudden available to all of these different industrial arms, and that is exciting to people in the community,” says Cousins. “It’s exciting to see this bridge forming between the academic community and the industry community.”

Of course, if you visit Willow Garage, what you’ll see is robots, not the software running inside them. The PR2 is still the company’s flagship product, and on any given day, a handful of them are rolling around the building on various research assignments (or perhaps just searching for power outlets where they can recharge). These days, you’ll also see quite a few Texai robots—”remote telepresence” bots built to help remote workers to connect with their colleagues by enabling them to send a camera-equipped robot roaming around the office. (This New York Times video explains the concept.) So many people have expressed interest in Texai that Hassan has started a spinoff company, called Suitable Technologies, to commercialize them.

And creating even more spinoffs like Suitable is part of the plan at Willow Garage. But unlike most of other Silicon Valley startups, the company is not in a rush to build money-making products. Thanks to Hassan’s deep pockets, it can take its time building a solid foundation, in the hope that a future Willow Garage—or its spinoffs, or even its competitors—will be able to build the upper floors.

“Software is a huge lever,” says Cousins. “In the Internet boom, companies with one or two people could put together a piece of software that made a big difference in people’s lives. The business argument I make is that if we invest a few million now, we can cause the future to happen five years sooner than it would have.”

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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