The Robot Operating System: What is ROS?

The Robot Operating System: What is ROS?

It’s a tool for robotics research collaboration. It’s a communication protocol, an open source library of interesting robotics software, and a useful prototyping tool. Depending on who you ask, ROS can be a lot of things. Literally, it stands for Robot Operating System. It’s one the hottest topics in the field of robotics, and if you ask, “What is ROS?” to five different people, you may get five different answers!

Robots are complex systems with a lot of different parts. Ideally, the components of most complex systems should be modular and encapsulated. Each part should be able to function with minimal dependency on a different part. At the very core, that’s what ROS provides. Components of a robot, be it the vision system, the arms, or a microcontroller can be separated into nodes that communicate with each other through a common communication standard, called topics.

But that’s not all. Any component can talk to any other component because the sender sends the message packet in the format that the receiver would get, all managed by the master ROS node. So the only major requirement for integrating different parts of a robot is to make sure that the topics expected are the topics being sent. Suddenly, the need to make complex drivers for new systems is gone. Let your new component be a new node and make sure any messages it sends out is in a ROS topic. Now any other component should be able to recognize the topic and get information.

Suddenly, a roboticist somewhere writes some amazing computer vision software, and another roboticist on the other side of the world can easily integrate that software with the robot he already has. As you might expect, the power to collaborate has opened the way for open-source robotics software. Projects can be exported as packages, which function similarly to software libraries.

ROS is growing and growing. As development gets faster due to the abundance of software packages available online, more and more packages are added to the ever growing global ROS library. And more packages means that people have even more reasons to start using ROS in their own projects, projects get off the ground faster, and it becomes easier to do cool and crazy robotics stuff like controlling a robot’s head with an Oculus Rift.

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