Willow Garage Spins Off Open Source Robotics Foundation

5/9/12Follow @wroush

It’s a rite of passage in the software world: Once the community around an open-source application, operating system, or language grows large enough, the creators often set up an independent, non-profit organization to oversee future growth. It happened with basic Web tools like the Apache Web server back in the 1990s, and now it’s starting to happen in robotics, where researchers are working to provide a common base for faster innovation.

Menlo Park, CA-based robot maker Willow Garage today announced the formation new non-profit called the Open Source Robotics Foundation, whose mission will be “to support the development, distribution, and adoption of open source software for use in robotics research, education, and product development,” according to a press release. In practice, this will mean overseeing future releases of the Robot Operating System (ROS)—a collection of open source robotics code originally developed at Willow Garage—and Gazebo, a software package used to simulate robot motion in outdoor environments.

Brian Gerkey, formerly the director of open source development at Willow Garage, will become CEO of the Open Source Robotics Foundation

The foundation hasn’t yet assumed formal control of ROS or Gazebo, but that’s the expectation. Brian Gerkey, director of open source development at Willow Garage since 2008, will leave the company to become the foundation’s CEO. Joining Gerkey on the board of directors are Wolfram Burgard, leader of the Laboratory for Autonomous Intelligent Systems at the University of Freiburg in Germany; Ryan Gariepy, co-founder and chief technology officer at Clearpath Robotics, a robot maker in Kitchener, Ontario; Helen Greiner, co-founder of iRobot and CEO of UAV maker CyPhy Works in Massachusetts; and Sam Park, executive vice presidnet of Yujin Robot in South Korea.

The foundation’s first big push will be to participate in the latest Robotics Challenge organized by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The agency plans to award up to $34 million to teams that can demonstrate robots with advanced disaster-response capabilities, and it’s anticipated that many teams will use ROS to program their robots or Gazebo to simulate their performance before sending them into the field.

The foundation’s initial funding comes from Willow Garage and the DARPA, and it’s already seeking more sponsors, according to a Willow Garage spokesperson.

Willow Garage CEO Steve Cousins hinted that the news was coming at Xconomy’s forum last week on The Future of Robotics in Silicon Valley and Beyond. “It’s always been the intention of Willow Garage to create an independent body that can take our initial work in open source robotics and see it grow beyond the confines of a single organization,” Cousins said in today’s announcement. “The reality is that the popularity of open source robotics in general, and ROS specifically, has grown beyond our wildest expectations.  Willow Garage will enthusiastically support the goals of the OSRF.”

Wade Roush is Chief Correspondent and Editor At Large at Xconomy. You can subscribe to his Google Group or e-mail him at wroush@xconomy.com. Follow @wroush

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