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DARPA-Funded Software Could Usher In the Era of Open-Source Robotics

Soulskill posted about 10 months ago | from the or-skynet,-either-one dept.

Robotics 17

malachiorion writes "The best thing to come out of the DARPA Robotics Challenge, so far, isn't the lineup of nifty rescue bots being developed by teams around the world, or even Boston Dynamics' incredible Atlas humanoid. It's the pumped-up version of Gazebo, the free, open-source robotics simulation software whose expansion and further development is being funded by DARPA. This article has a look at how the software was used in the recent virtual leg of the competition, as well as how it could change the way robotics R&D is conducted (and create more roboticists, with its low-cost, cloud-based architecture)."

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17 comments

Military money makes the research world go 'round. (4, Informative)

intermodal (534361) | about 10 months ago | (#44137181)

The Boeing 707 is a perfect example. The military demand for jets like the B-52 and KC-135 projects heavily influenced the iconic jetliner, and today, the 737 retains many of its design features. The 707 design is so similar to the KC-135 that upon their replacement with newer airliners, most examples were purchased by the military and used as parts for the KC-135 fleet.

Meanwhile, the Internet exists because of DARPA, the Blue Riband is held by a ship designed specifically for conversion to a troopship, and we enjoy any number of advances in a plethora of fields as a result of the space program, originally having its roots not only in the German rockets that attacked Britain but in showing the Russians how far we could lob nuclear warheads with the exact same missile designs.

I'm glad this time it's going open source.

Re:Military money makes the research world go 'rou (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44137339)

Because if using the internet has taught us anything it's that when Skynet becomes self aware it's going to need to share its changes with the community.

Adult supervision (4, Informative)

Animats (122034) | about 10 months ago | (#44137699)

What DARPA is providing for Gazebo is adult supervision. They're paying for getting the bugs fixed. Gazebo has been around for years, and like most open-source projects with modest user bases, it sort of worked. Now it's finally getting fixed. It still only installs easily on Ubuntu 12.04, has tons of dependencies including limitations on supported graphics cards, has lots of bugs, and way too many configuration files. But it's now usable.

The "cloud" business is merely a way to make the DARPA competition honest. For competition purposes, the simulator runs in an Amazon AWS instance controlled by DARPA, with the simulated robot controlled through an API that only provides information a real robot would provide. The robot control programs written by competitors can't see the map of the world; all it gets is simulated vision and LIDAR data. It's a lot like the server/client relationship of an MMORPG. Each user has their own server instance; the world is not, as yet, shared.

The "cloud" is not otherwise necessary, or even desirable. For development purposes, you'd usually run the simulator and the control programs on the same machine, or at least a local machine.

A big problem with Gazebo is that the physics engine is only game-quality. Here it matters, because foot/ground contact is what supports the simulated robot, and most game simulators don't do contacts very well. Gazebo is in the process of switching from ODE to Bullet, which should help.

Re:Adult supervision (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44138059)

DARPA is paying for high quality, free, and open-source robot simulator. They have stated multiple times that funding Gazebo is meant to make a major leap forward in simulation technology for the betterment of the robotics community. OSRF will continue to develop Gazebo for the foreseeable future.

Prior to this, Gazebo was developed by two people in their spare time. It's very astounding that such a simulator even existed, given the complexity of robot simulation and the limited resources put into the project. Having bugs to fix actually means people use the software, and care enough to submit issues and occasionally help out. That is a sign of active and prosperous software package.

You are really narrow-sighted about the concept of cloud simulation. Yes, it's a tool to host the VRC. It also has many other benefits for education at the highschool and college level, and hosting other educational competitions. With a little spit and polish it could be a be a mechanism to crowd-source robot design, and environment building. I haven't even touch upon the concept of running many simulation simultaneously as a prediction tool for physical robots.

I would love a cloud based simulation solution for development purposes. Please, spare me from the tedium of install and maintaining software. All I want to do is get work done.

Any roboticist knows that a robot does not automatically get a map of the world upon power-up, especially if the robot was just dropped into a disaster sight. While Gazebo can provide ground truth data about everything in simulation, it's obviously not realistic to do so. During the competition teams were not provided with a map because that's not how the real world works. Teams get sensor data, and then have to figure out the best control strategy based on that information.

I would like to point out that ODE and Bullet solve exactly the same equations of motion. To say ODE is game-quality is the same as saying Bullet is only game-quality. Do a little research before making statements that are blatantly false. That said, I've followed recent developments of Gazebo. They have made some pretty impressive improvements to ODE that improve performance and accuracy well beyond the standard package. Try to list all the simulators that have a humanoid robot capable of walking around and interacting with complex environments at near real-time.

Re:Adult supervision (1)

simbot (2966887) | about 10 months ago | (#44138213)

There are a lot of great features in Gazebo these days. It's great that DARPA is funding an open source project, especially one that is designed to live long after the DRC ends.

Re: Adult supervision (1)

malachiorion (1205130) | about 10 months ago | (#44138273)

I'm biased, since I wrote this story, and included the emphasis on cloud computing, but I agree--it's not fair to discount the utility of cloud assets. I think that's the biggest, most exciting news in here, actually. The kinds of über-rigs that Virginia Tech's DRC Track A team was using for simulation would never be within reach for a high school robotics class/teacher. To say its irrelevant is to basically claim that Gazebo's creators at OSRF are flat-out liars. I don't think that's the case.

The miracle of the cloud (1)

Animats (122034) | about 10 months ago | (#44140395)

You are really narrow-sighted about the concept of cloud simulation. Yes, it's a tool to host the VRC. It also has many other benefits for education at the highschool and college level, and hosting other educational competitions. With a little spit and polish it could be a be a mechanism to crowd-source robot design, and environment building. I haven't even touch upon the concept of running many simulation simultaneously as a prediction tool for physical robots.

I would love a cloud based simulation solution for development purposes. Please, spare me from the tedium of install and maintaining software. All I want to do is get work done.

Just because it can run on Amazon AWS doesn't mean it's free. Each job running in simulation ties up three large AWS machines and one small one. [theroboticschallenge.org] You'd have to rent machine time from Amazon and load up your own instances. There's no free world simulator to connect to. This thing takes a lot of engine behind it.

Re:Adult supervision (1)

SoftwareArtist (1472499) | about 10 months ago | (#44138087)

Actually, they're currently working to incorporate Simbody [simtk.org], a simulation engine designed for engineering applications. That should provide much better realism.

Re:Adult supervision (1)

Animats (122034) | about 10 months ago | (#44140357)

Actually, they're currently working to incorporate Simbody, a simulation engine designed for engineering applications. That should provide much better realism.

SimBody, like its predecessor, SD/Fast, is an excellent system for implementing Featherstone's method for articulated systems. The big market for it is protein folding, for which a rigid-body Newtonian model is apparently good enough.

I'm looking forward to seeing how they handle collisions, contacts, and friction. That's the hard part.

direct URl (1)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44137951)

http://www.gazebosim.org/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robotics_simulator

Cloud Robotics is the future (1)

UniqueJoe (793219) | about 10 months ago | (#44138299)

The real time simulation of an Atlas walking robot, with its walking controller, Laser scanner and 6 cameras (2 in each hand!) is beyond the capabilities of most ordinary computers. In fact, even the AWS instances were too slow and the contest was actually held on the SoltLayer infrastructure (now IBM), using K10 Tesla gpus and dual Intel Xeon E5-2690-OctoCore [2.9GHz]. The cloud is a good place is good place for simulation, not only because you can get a hundred computers for 1 hour (instead of having to wait 100 hours on a single one), but also because of the vast data sets you will eventually be able to tap into (grasping libraries, objects recognition data sets,etc). There's only a very finite amount of data you can upload and download to your local machine. Running robot simulations in the cloud is a great way to share. Publishing simulations and algorithms so that anyone can try them on a public cloud is much better than trying to get others replicate your local setup with tutorials and instructions. Not to mention the time you don't have to spend installing and configuring software.

dont worry (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44138493)

yall still got me.

-dirtbag

Nope, screw the military (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44138737)

This raises a related question - are there any pre-composed open source licenses out there that expressly prohibit any military use? I think its great and all that you kids are getting your money for playing around and doing what you enjoy, but at the end of the day have you considered the full consequences of what you're working toward?

Inside View (2)

simbot (2966887) | about 10 months ago | (#44139031)

Full disclosure: I'm Nate Koenig, co-founder.

Normally I keep to side lines and let the internet buzz take care of itself. However, I was disheartened to see the most highly ranked comment be so negative about a free project designed to improve not only robotics research, but also disaster response robots.

Animats does have one valid point. Gazebo has been buggy, in the past. It was also just a side project with one developer and no funding until a few years ago when Willow Garage brought Gazebo under its roof. Gazebo has now matured beyond a research project into a robust application with a growing community of users and developers.

It's been particularly exciting to have simulation move into the cloud. The cost and time required to start a complex simulation has been greatly reduced. Educators, hobbyists, and researchers now have a great tool for a wide variety of uses. Cloud computing is designed for large data sets and strict performance requirements. Simulation needs both of these.

ODE is currently the primary physics engine in Gazebo, with Bullet integration almost complete and SimBody and RTQL8 within a year. It deserves to be mentioned that ODE and Bullet both use a maximal coordinate solvers. This means they effectively produce the same result. Many games use engines similar or identical to ODE and Bullet. The key difference is how they are used. Gazebo optimizes ODE and Bullet for robot simulation. This means physics run slower, but we get out less residual error. There are other tricks game engines play that a simulator can't, but at the end of the day we are all just solving the equations of motion.

Over the next few years expect to see great things from Gazebo, including scripting interfaces, plotting utilities, robot modeling widgets, physics auto-tuning, many more robots and environments, vehicle suspension models, improved friction modeling, a sensor noise model pipeline, and deformable objects.

Most importantly, I want to thank everyone who have used and contributed to Gazebo (especially all the VRC teams who toiled through countless hours to produce very impressive results of Atlas completing complex tasks). Good luck to everyone continuing on in the DRC!!

Re:Inside View (1)

jkflying (2190798) | about 10 months ago | (#44143541)

Ignore the negativity, /. is just full of pessimists.

I played around with Gazebo/ROS last year, and I really like what I saw. Unfortunately I'm involved more in the embedded and integration side, so the stuff I do doesn't have enough processing power to make use of ROS. However, using Gazebo as a modelling tool for testing different robot configurations is awesome!

Re:Inside View (0)

Anonymous Coward | about 10 months ago | (#44143575)

Nate,

Glad to see your software get recognition on Slashdot. It's awesome. I learned it for the thesis I'm working on. Now everyone in the lab comes to me to generate a simulation/video when they can't quite get their (physical) robot implementations to work before a deadline.

The software definitely has great momentum now. Seeing how quickly the team responds to questions and bug reports gives me confidence that it's something worth learning and dedicating my time to.

Keep up the great work!

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