The French firm has been developing Nao over the past five years, turning an initially obscure robot with a quirky name into a widely adopted research and education platform used to study human-robot communication, help treat hospitalized children, and play soccer.
It's not yet clear exactly which parts of Nao's software platform will become open source and which will remain proprietary. The company said in a release that it will "share a significant part of [Nao's] source code with the research and developer community by the end of 2011."
Last year, when I interviewed Bruno Maisonnier, Aldebaran's founder and CEO, he hinted that making Nao more open was a desired move for the company, aimed at both building a stronger developer community and improving the robot's overall capabilities. Here's what he says in the release:
“Building robotics applications is challenging: applications are built upon many state-of-the-art complex technologies like speech recognition, object recognition, grasping, navigation and mapping. Applications need to be secure and be able to run in a constrained environment with limited resources. With over five years of experience in developing embedded systems for robotics platforms, we want to share our middleware, our core communication library, our cross-platform build tools and other essential modules with researchers, developers and emerging projects in humanoid robotics."
Open source is becoming a powerful trend in robotics. A year ago, another French company, Gostai, maker of robotics software and the Jazz telepresence robot, also announced it was opening the code of Urbi, its flagship product. This week, RoboDynamics introduced a US $3,000 personal robot called Luna that will likely run on open source software. Also this week, Google unveiled its Android Open Accessory, a project combining its mobile operating system, Android, and the popular DIY open source microcontroller Arduino. And then, of course, there's Willow Garage, the Silicon Valley firm that is perhaps the strongest backer of open source robotics and whose Robot Operating System, or ROS, and other open source projects are becoming ever more popular.
Not everyone in robotics has embraced open source, though. At least one major figure has said he doesn't favor the trend. In an interview with Forbes, iRobot CEO Colin Angle called into question the benefits of open source for the industry:
Angle also questions the benefits of some open-source robotic initiatives. He notes that giving away technology can hurt any business. “Solving the hard problems of robotics and giving those solutions away is the worst thing someone can do for the robotics industry,” says Angle. “You have to understand the economic engine behind things.”
That's a provocative statement. I'm sure many people would question the claim that open source robotics is bad for the consumers. But who knows, maybe there are others who would agree with him? What do you think?
Updated May 16, 2011: Fixed date when Urbi was released as open source.
Image: Aldebaran Robotics