Last week, DARPA officially announced its Robotics Challenge for disaster robots. According to the program, teams that don't want (or can't afford) to build their own robots will be able to prove themselves using a standardized simulation environment (and later may receive a real robot to use in the competition). Now we got official confirmation that this standardized simulation environment will be based on the Gazebo simulator, one the primary tools used in the ROS community, and will be provided by the Open Source Robotics Foundation. Huh? Open Source Robotics Foundation?
You're likely already familiar with the Robot Operating System, or ROS, in relation to Willow Garage's PR2 robots. A few years ago, Willow Garage integrated ROS and the PR2 into Gazebo, a multi-robot simulator project started at the University of Southern California by Andrew Howard and Nate Koenig. Willow Garage now provides financial support for the development of Gazebo. However, DARPA isn't awarding the simulator contract to Willow Garage itself, but instead to the Open Source Robotics Foundation, which nobody has heard of until just now.
From the sound of things, Willow Garage has decided that ROS is now mature enough to go off and fend for itself, and the Open Source Robotics Foundation is the shiny new embodiment of that confidence. And it really is brand new: the OSR Foundation website is, well, minimalist, to say the least. All we really know is that it's a Menlo Park, Calif. nonprofit that's managed by "members of the global robotics community who have demonstrated a commitment to open-source robotics, are visible to the community, and have relevant experience in the field," but who are currently still anonymous.
It's certainly true that Gazebo and ROS have impressive pedigrees, and according to DARPA's announcement, it chose Gazebo on the basis of "an informal market survey" through which the OSR Foundation was "deemed to be the sole viable supplier for providing the necessary open-source simulation software within the specified timeframe." It's interesting to note that as far as we know the OSR Foundation kind of didn't even exist until very recently, so DARPA is putting a lot of faith (and presumably funding) into a foundation without a distinct track record. We'll just have to assume (for now) that both DARPA and the OSR Foundation know what they're doing, and that they've got things under control and ready to go.
The other little niggling question here is whether this means that the OSR Foundation is going to devote the majority of its resources into optimizing Gazebo for the Challenge itself, as opposed to taking an approach that might be better (or at least more productive) for the robotics community and Gazebo users as a whole. I guess this probably depends on how much funding it gets from DARPA as opposed to other sources, but the risk is that Gazebo becomes a project for DARPA rather than a project that DARPA simply benefits from.
Anyway, here's what DARPA is expecting the Open Source Robotics Foundation to contribute to the Challenge:
The Open Source Robotics Foundation will develop an open-source robot simulation software system for use by the DARPA Robotics Challenge program. The effort will develop validated models of robots (kinematics, dynamics, and sensors) and field environments (three-dimensional surfaces, solids, and material properties). The effort will develop physics-based models of inertia, actuation, contact, and environment dynamics to simulate the robot's motion. The effort will make the simulation software available on an open-source basis, and will host the simulation so that participants in the DARPA Robotics Challenge program can access it freely.
We're still very early on in this whole process, and the DARPA Robotics Challenge doesn't launch until October, so we'll certainly have lots more details for you between now and then.
We'd like to acknowledge Travis Deyle of Hizook.com for his thoughtful contributions to this post.