It was not so far in time when I used to program robots using assembler language, a sort of machine code extremely close to the hardware of the machine. In those times programming a robot for complex functions, like navigating autonomously from one room to another was a difficult and time consuming project, that may take months for a team of people.
Robotics is evolving very fast as well as the open source movement. A really interesting outcome of both evolutions is ROS (Robot Operating System). ROS is an open-source, meta-operating system for robots, is a robotics middleware (i.e. collection of software frameworks for robot software development). It provides the services you would expect from an operating system, including hardware abstraction, low-level device control, implementation of commonly-used functionality, message-passing between processes, and package management. It also provides tools and libraries for obtaining, building, writing, and running code across multiple computers.
Nowadays it is possible to program a proof of concept for a robotics system in few days, thanks to ROS and all the open source, already available tools. Its integration with Gazebo Open Source Simulator is also a great help on the design and test of algorithms and behaviors.
Just as an example, let me share with you a development I did recently, using ROS. It took me about 10 hours to write on my own an application for a robot to work as a messenger, able to go to any room or location in a house or an office to deliver goods. The function of the robot is very straightforward: You just put something on the tray of the robot and indicate in the touch screen where to deliver. Then the robot, using a 360 degrees laser scanner for detection of the environment and SLAM navigation technology, finds a trajectory to the required location. This development would have taken easily 6 months of work for a team of 5 people 10 years ago. Now you could have it in 10 hours of only one developer and with a hardware technology (robot platform, lidar, embedded computer)
HERE you could also find all the documentation about the development of this solution. In fact this documentation will be one of the chapter of my next book about ROS that I expect to publish soon.
But ROS is not only for developing a proof of concept, but real products for consumer and industrial market. I will talk more about it in future posts.
Thanks for the Open Source philosophy, thanks for the developers of Linux, the Open Source Operating System in which ROS works, thanks for all the hard work done by Willow Garage team for the development did of ROS and thanks to the incredible community of developers that share their knowledge and code for the Robotics evolution. This is the key factor of this time. We all are working to make the Robotics technology evolve, by sharing, for the art of sharing.
[ Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robot_Operating_System ]
[ Ros.org http://wiki.ros.org/ROS/Introduction ]