#3 ROS-Industrial: free software tools drive robotics forward

#Whatsnextrobotics – ROS-Industrial compact

  • The free software framework ROS offers numerous components for industrial and service robots, making it possible to respond efficiently and cost-effectively to the growing need for flexibility in automated processes
  • Based on the proverb: Why reinvent the wheel over and over again if certain complex basic skills for robots are always in demand?
  • Together with developers and companies, the ROS-Industrial initiative ensures that ROS meets the requirements of industrial applications even better
  • ROS can also be used commercially and is already being implemented
© Fraunhofer IPA

#3 ROS-Industrial: free software tools drive robotics forward

For years, Fraunhofer IPA has been closely involved in the further development of the free Robot Operating System (ROS). This enables companies to implement basic but complex technologies for robots quickly and efficiently. As leaders of the European ROS-Industrial Consortium, the IPA experts also promote the use of ROS in industrial contexts.

The list of members of the worldwide ROS-Industrial initiative is impressive: 90 companies are on it – from start-ups and research institutions to internationally renowned corporations. And the trend is rising. They all support the open source software ROS, a software framework that provides numerous features for industrial and service robots. These can be anything from components for image processing and motion planning, hardware drivers for entire robots, sensors or other components, planning, control and data processing algorithms, or even diagnostic and development tools.

Most of these components are freely available and – in line with the open source principle – once developed, can be reused several times or alternatively as a basis for a new or continued development. Many components are manufacturer-independent, standardized and developed collaboratively. For example, a paper for the year 2020 determined that there are more than 8000 contributors to the core components of ROS.

Developing robot systems more cost-effectively

Almost from the very beginning, IPA scientists were actively involved in this community. ROS has its roots on the West Coast of America, where in 2007 the Willow Garage company developed the open-source operating system for its robotics research platform called PR 2. The first release followed two years later, and many robotics development teams began using the system, to start with mostly for research-related applications and reproductions in software-intensive service robotics.

The advantages are clear: a lot of robotic systems need similar basic skills such as the aforementioned image processing and motion planning, or even navigation. If these had to be developed from scratch each time, they would be anything but economical and efficient. Thanks to ROS, the wheel does not have to be reinvented over and over again and innovation processes can be implemented faster and in a more up-to-date manner. What actually sounds like an obvious truism is actually a small revolution in robotics, where a kind of “silo thinking” is still widespread and most manufacturers stick to their own in-house solutions. Due to the breath of fresh air that ROS brought to robotics development, many interested parties jumped on the bandwagon and an impressive ecosystem of users and developers soon formed around ROS. The first organizations also started using it for their service robot developments.

Technology boost through ROSIN research project

A decisive technological leap was made possible by the ROSIN research project from 2017 to 2020, in which Fraunhofer IPA played a key role. Thanks to financial support from the EU's Horizon 2020 research program, the project was able to pass on more than three million euros to third parties for the further development of ROS. Companies and other institutions were able to apply for compact collaboration formats and develop (or have developed for them) application-related components. Further training on all aspects of ROS as well as quality assurance were also focal points in the project.

ROS for industry

About ten years ago, the Fraunhofer IPA team, together with developers from the Southwest Research Institute in San Francisco, recognized the potential of ROS for applications over and above research-related service robotics. This is due to the fact that industrial automation solutions are also becoming increasingly software-heavy in order to satisfy the growing demands for flexibility and autonomy. Consequently, in 2013, the two institutions founded the ROS-Industrial Consortium, an initiative that wanted to further develop ROS for industrial robotics and also involve companies in the process.

Ten years later, the aim remains unchanged. The 90 members mentioned above are proof of the strong interest, which is also reflected in the regional breakdown of the consortium. There are now three regional offshoots: one in Europe, one in the Americas, and one in the Asia Pacific region (the latter since 2016). They all engage in strong community building practices, for example in the form of training classes, events such as the ROS-Industrial Conference organized by Fraunhofer IPA, or funding formats with which companies can co-finance specific ROS developments.

The overall aim is to tailor ROS even better to industrial requirements, to improve the reliability of the software and to advance adaptations to industrial standards and regulations. The initiative sees itself as a technology partner and interface between the developer community and industry partners, bringing together their different development cultures. Community-driven developments flow into ROS, and at the same time these developments are linked to major goals and programs promoted by politics and business, such as Industry 4.0. The initiative also addresses the issues of liability, support, and warranties, and provides a financial and organizational framework.

Commercial use

Working with open source software does not mean that it cannot also be used for commercial purposes. In fact, such commercial use is already quite common and often incorporates both open-source and closed-source components. This combined use of open- and closed-source ROS components is possible because ROS is licensed under the BSD (Berkeley Software Distribution) license: Anyone may use, modify and commercially distribute the code as long as the copyright is always clearly legible. Because recently developed packages are published under Apache 2.0, a patent clause is added to the BSD license. This is intended to protect users and contributors from patent infringement suits.

At Fraunhofer IPA, ROS has already been implemented in a number of industrial developments. One notable application is the navigation software for automated guided vehicles that bring vehicle bodies from one assembly station to the next at an automotive manufacturer. The application has been in use since 2016. ROS also serves as the basis for simplified industrial robot programming. Both fields of application have resulted in spin-offs from the institute. And, last but not least, ROS is also used in the production line of a global automotive supplier. Thus, Fraunhofer IPA alone has several hundred robots in industrial use that utilize ROS.

Getting started with ROS

The ROS team at Fraunhofer IPA can help you get started with the use of open source software in many ways, for example through membership in the consortium or in the form of consulting and training, the latter also with regard to licensing, liability issues and customer support. Further services include prototype implementations and proof of concepts. Application-specific components for industrial hardware or simulation models are also developed. The current focus is mainly on optimizing ROS2 and training people how to use it.

All in all, the developments around ROS and ROS-Industrial prove that high-quality open source software has become a competitive factor. And this is true not only for start-ups, but also for established companies. When will you discover its advantages for you and your company? We look forward to hearing from you.

© Fraunhofer IPA