Roboticists at the recent International Joint Conference on Artificial Intelligence discussed the frustrating lack of a common operating system among today's robots. From New Scientist:
This desire has its roots in frustration, says Brian Gerkey of the robotics research firm Willow Garage in Menlo Park, California. "People reinvent the wheel over and over and over, doing things that are not at all central to what they're trying to do..."
The challenge of building a robot OS for widespread adoption is greater than that for computers. "The problems that a computer solves are fairly well defined. There is a very clear mathematical notion of computation," says Gerkey. "There's not the same kind of clear abstraction about interacting with the physical world."
Nevertheless, roboticists are starting to make some headway.The Robot Operating System or ROS is an open-source set of programs meant to serve as a common platform for a wide range of robotics research. It is being developed and used by teams at Stanford University in California, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Technical University of Munich, Germany, among others.
ROS has software commands that, for instance, provide ways of controlling a robot's navigation, and its arms, grippers and sensors, without needing details of how the hardware functions. The system also includes high-level commands for actions like image recognition and even opening doors. When ROS boots up on a robot's computer, it asks for a description of the robot that includes things like the length of its arm segments and how the joints rotate. It then makes this information available to the higher-level algorithms.