Becoming the Microsoft of the Robot World

Robots build our cars and electronics. They sort packages with ease, lift enormous weights, and perform microsurgeries too small for the human eye. In Afghanistan, robots are fighting our wars. What they can't do is share an operating system.

Today approximately 8.6 million robots are around the world, according to IFR World Robotics. That's equal to roughly the population of New Jersey. And most of these have been designed from scratch. For years, tinkerers in garages, professors at universities, and scientists at corporations have essentially been reinventing the wheel each time they develop a new robot. That means designing the hardware and writing the code that drives the actions. From robot welders to robot vacuum cleaners, the robotics industry at this point is essentially siloed.

But maybe not for much longer. Enormous profits await the company that could become the Microsoft (MSFT) of the robotic world. "There is competition over who is going to have the dominant operating system for robots," says Ryan Calo, director of the Consumer Privacy Project at Stanford University's Center for Internet and Society.

Standards are essential to the development and adaptation of technology. Competing standards confuse consumers and hinder progress. For example, the competition between Sony's (SNE) Blu-ray DVD system and Toshiba's (TOSYY:OTC) HD DVD system hurt sales of both systems. The logjam was resolved in 2008 when Toshiba announced it would stop manufacturing its system. As Calo says, "There are a bunch of groups that want to make the top operating system. It really matters."

Open Source or Not?

Robots that respond to humans, make decisions, and operate beyond direct orders are built on incredibly complex software. Just the act of creating a robot that will grasp a cup or smile on being asked a question takes extensive amounts of code.

Multiple companies have released operating systems based on proprietary software. Microsoft released Microsoft Robotics Studio, a robot operating system and software development package in 2007. Evolution Robotics, the maker of the Mint Automatic Floor Cleaner, has a version of operating software called the Evolution Robotics Software Architecture.

Another company, founded in 2006 by ex-Googler Scott Hassan, is trying to create an open-source robot operating system (ROS). Willow Garage began by building a robot, called the PR2, with open-source software. This year, the Menlo Park (Calif.) company gave 11 of them away to research institutions and companies at a total cost of $4 million. The robots went on sale last month at $400,000, or a discounted price of $280,000 to a company or institution with a history of contributing to open-source projects.

By open, Calo says it needs to be "nondedicated as to use, nondiscriminatory as to software, and modular in design." That's what Willow Garage is going for, as well.

Folding Towels, Shooting Pool

"We want it to be the operating system for robotics for the entire industry," says Tim Smith, spokesman for Willow Garage. Georgia Tech researchers have programmed the PR2 to work on elder care, while scientists at Berkeley taught PR2 to fold towels. A PR2 was recently programmed to play pool using an open-source billiards engine posted online.

"You have to be a roboticist to want one of these," Smith said. "They don't help around the house. These are platforms. They don't do much until they are put in the hands of researchers who decide what they will do."

A robot operating system works only for a robot with massive processing power. For designs with smaller computers on board, a complicated ROS doesn't necessarily make sense. Ronald Fearing, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, says he is in favor of open-source robotics, though open-source software wouldn't necessarily benefit the tiny robots he is designing.

"We're hopeful we can make the hardware for the robots open-source as well," says Fearing. "A couple of people with access to laser cutters have downloaded our designs and built them up."

Breaking the Walking Record

A further complication is that because robotics is still in its relative infancy, no dominant technology or manufacturer has yet emerged. Because in most cases the motions performed by today's robots are so simplistic—walking, rolling, welding—there is always the possibility that a better mousetrap can still be developed. For example, two robots designed solely for the purpose of walking might use completely different architecture. That is the case with a robot—the battery-powered Cornell Ranger—that broke the record for nonstop distance walked by an untethered-legged robot this year. The robot that previously held the record was BigDog, a deer-size, combustion engine robot.

Andy Ruina, a professor of mechanical engineering at Cornell University who created the Ranger, says too many robots are just sticks connected by hinges, and the angles at the hinges are controlled functions of time. He says robots should have a more natural swinging function—uncontrolled dynamics—that conserve energy.

Ruina says he would love an operating system to fit the Ranger. But at this point, there isn't one broad enough to work for, say, both BigDog and the Ranger. As Ruina puts it: "The operating system has to be versatile enough to include uncontrolled dynamics as part of the motion but not too versatile to be cumbersome."

Warbots and Spybots

Open-source software can simplify design phases but at the same time make systems more vulnerable. The very ubiquity of the Windows operating system makes it a favorite with hackers. This long-debated issue in the software community becomes especially important because so many robots are being designed for war and espionage purposes.

"The forces propelling robots in war are overwhelming," says Ray Kurzweil, an author and inventor who is a member of the Army Science Board. "An army and a nation [are] always going to prefer to sacrifice equipment over human soldiers."

Prototype robotic soldiers based on the Talon robots (built by QinetiQ North America in McLean, Va.) that disarm improvised explosive devices were shipped to Iraq in 2007. But controversy followed the robots after reported malfunctions. Army officials said the three robots never fired a shot outside of testing.

"It turns out to be next to impossible to debug software," Calo says. "You can have a sense of what a program is going to do, but getting it 100 percent right is not possible."

Overriding the Software

Bob Quinn, vice-president for Talon operations, is secretive about the software and security on the newest version of the robotic soldier—Modular Advance Armed Robotic System (Maars), which is now being tested by Special Forces in the U.S. Quinn does say, however: "There are multiple redundant safety controls. We simply don't rely on software alone."

Since many robots are designed with espionage in mind—such as a fly-size robot that could be outfitted with a camera designed by Harvard roboticists and a project at the University of California at Berkeley that has created robots no larger than a cockroach—it wouldn't make sense to have them all based on the same software. Many of them have far less computing capacity, anyway, than something like PR2.

For the more complicated robots, however, the operating system will become only more important. It's one thing when a robot vacuums a room and another when it is outfitted, like the Maars, with 40mm high-explosive grenades and an M240B machine gun with 450 rounds.

"This is software that can touch you," Calo says. "Unlike devices in the past, these machines can cause physical damage."

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