Could Robots Unite Under One Operating System?

A common robot operating system could lead to a robotics revolution -- scientifically speaking, of course

Robots Unite

Patch my operating system to 3.0 now, human!Warner Bros.

Today's robots represent islands unto themselves that don't share either software or hardware with each other. But researchers have begun developing a common operating system that could revolutionize robotics and permit easier collaboration with less reinvention of the proverbial wheel. The change could rival that which rippled through the PC industry when Microsoft's Disk Operating System (DOS), and later Windows, burst onto the scene and became standard.

One such robot operating system, appropriately known as ROS, has evolved into an open-source collaboration between Stanford University in California, MIT in Boston, and the Technical University of Munich in Germany. New Scientist reports that this allows research teams to share code for high-level commands involving actions such as image recognition, robot navigation, or using arms and grippers. But robot interactions with the physical world still pose far more complex challenges -- and require more complex solutions -- than well-defined and abstract computer problems.

Even Microsoft apparently waded into the action with its 2007 product named Robotics Developer Studio. No word on whether that product has achieved initial success in becoming a Windows for robots.

Allowing robotic researchers to swap code for nimble-fingered tricks or scary motorcycle riding could certainly push robotics advancements to a much faster rate, given that individual labs would not have to each labor over reproducing the same robot abilities. Perhaps hardware could also follow a modular approach that would enable even more collaboration, not unlike open-source gadget company Bug Labs that provides handy modules for high-tech geeks. PopSci joined with Bug Labs last year to host the Build-a-BUG Challenge.

Open-source and common platforms should undoubtedly prove helpful for robotics. But we can still imagine some robot systems, notably military drones fighting on land, sea and air, which may prefer more proprietary operating systems just in case. Besides, humans shouldn't make it too easy for Skynet to hack its future army of gun toting motorcycle fiends.

For now, both hardware and wetware types might do well to gleefully memorize this stanza: "One robot nation, under ROS …"