Research Institute Develops Open Interface for Robots

Jan. 29, 2013
Research and development institution, SwRI, develops an open interface for robotics with help from a consortium of public and private entities including Yaskawa. Some argue the advancement will revolutionize the technology and expand markets.

Soon manufacturers may have more freedom to explore the use of devices from multiple OEMs without the fear of having to retrain the personnel responsible for programming those devices or investing in new software.

The Automation and Data Systems Division of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI,, an independent, nonprofit organization that specializes in research and development for both government and commercial clients, is developing the ROS-Industrial repository—an open-source resource designed to create a common industrial control platform. SwRI has already demonstrated the capability of the ROS-Industrial repository to operate with conventional industrial robots in multiple industries. Its interface allows a single piece of software to operate any robot regardless of its OEM, explains SwRI research engineer Christina Gomez.

This project receives support from the government, independent researchers and even companies such as ABB ( and Yaskawa (, which could stand to lose leverage by allowing alternatives to its own software. These entities have assisted SwRI in compiling the various drivers required for the project. Thus far, more than 3,000 software development packages have been included. If embraced by industry, Gomez anticipates an end to the learning curves created when a company purchases new robots, as manufacturers rely solely on ROS.

By breaking with the historical pattern of using proprietary software as a hook for maintaining customers, Erik Nieves, technology director for Yaskawa America’s Motoman Robotics Division, says that allowing for the use of an open interface will bring new opportunities to the robotics world. As a company, Yaskawa has been using open interfaces for more than two decades, but the “robot market is 15 years behind schedule,” Nieves says. “And I attribute it to that to a very defensive posture that (robot manufacturers in general) have.”

Some of the greatest robot innovations today have been achieved through ROS, he says, by connecting with vision technology to allow robots to select parts from cluttered environments. As a result of ROS, robots are evolving into multi-armed machines for better material handling in unstructured environments. This is the type of growth that will truly benefit the industry as a whole, he says.

ROS-Industrial supports robotic workcell visualization and simulation capabilities such as RViz for Android, a ROS visualization program that illustrates a robot’s perspective, allowing system development and testing with or without physical hardware. ROS-Industrial allows both 2D-vision and 3D-point cloud sensor processing. Software development tools in ROS-Industrial (based on standard Linux tools) include universal logging, debuggers and automated coding. Multiple robot path planners and optimizations allow developers to choose and customize systems that support high-degree-of-freedom systems coordinating multiple arms.

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