Happy 10th Birthday to the Open Source Robotics Foundation

OSRF founders discuss changes they’ve seen over the last decade

4 min read

Evan Ackerman is IEEE Spectrum’s robotics editor.

A large cartoon sea turtle floats in the water, carrying a variety of cartoon robots on its back

Ten years ago this week (more or less), the Open Source Robotics Foundation announced that it was spinning out of Willow Garage as a more permanent home for the Robot Operating System. We covered this news at the time (which makes yours truly feel not quite so young anymore), but it wasn’t entirely clear just what would happen to OSRF long term.

Obviously, things have gone well over the last decade, not just for OSRF, but also for Gazebo, ROS, and the ROS community as a whole. OSRF is now officially Open Robotics, but that hasn’t stopped all sane people from continuing to call it OSRF anyway, because five syllables is just ridiculous. Meanwhile, ROS has been successful enough that it’s getting increasingly difficult to find alliterative turtle names to mark new releases.

To celebrate this milestone, we asked some of the original OSRF folks some awkward questions, including what it is about ROS or ROS users that scares them the most.

First, some fun statistics:

  • Unique visitor downloads of ROS packages in 2011: 4,517
  • Unique visitor downloads of ROS packages in 2021: 789,956
  • Public Github repositories currently tagged for ROS or ROS2: 6,559
  • Cumulative citations of the original ROS paper (::cough:: workshop paper ::cough::): 9,451
  • Number of syllables added by changing “OSRF” to “Open Robotics”: 1

For a bit more history, we sent a couple of questions to some OSRF folks who go way back, including Brian Gerkey (cofounder and CEO, Open Robotics), Ryan Gariepy (cofounder of Clearpath Robotics and OTTO Motors and Open Robotics board member), and Nate Koenig (cofounder and CTO, Open Robotics).

IEEE Spectrum: When did you first hear about ROS and/or Gazebo?

Nate Koenig: Out of the mouth of my advisor Andrew Howard as we worked on creating Gazebo back in 2002.

Brian Gerkey: I first heard about Gazebo in the early 2000s, when I was still in grad school at USC. We had written Player, a precursor to ROS, and Stage, a 2D indoor robot simulator that’s still used today. Andrew Howard and Nate started work on a 3D outdoor simulator, and they called it Gazebo because a gazebo is an outdoor stage (sort of). I first heard about ROS when I joined Willow Garage in early 2008. The team was iterating on a system called Switchyard that Morgan Quigley had built at Stanford. The working name was “ROS,” but there was plenty of debate on the name in the early days. I lobbied to make it version 3 of Player, but my argument did not carry the day.

Ryan Gariepy: I first heard of ROS on 4 May 2010. In the sunny metropolis of Anchorage, Alaska, at the Willow Garage booth at ICRA.

What surprises you most about the current state of ROS and/or Gazebo?

Gariepy: Running into so many people outside of the “typical” autonomous robotics fields who know what ROS is and use it.

Koenig: I’m honestly surprised that Gazebo has lasted and grown for 20 years. I did not expect a grad-school side project to transform into a tool utilized by researchers, companies, and government organizations. It’s amazing to see how Gazebo has progressed from its humble beginnings to its present-day capabilities.

What’s different about the ROS community between then and now?

Gariepy: The vast majority of contributors no longer trace their heritage back to Willow Garage, the Willow Garage PR2 beta program and internship programs, and Clearpath. Also, I no longer need to explain “open source” to investors and bankers.

Gerkey: The biggest change I’ve observed is that over the past 10 years a modern robotics industry has, at long last, taken off. We’d been telling ourselves for years and years that capable, semiautonomous robots would soon be out running around in the world, and now they finally are. And because many, perhaps most, of those robots run ROS, our community now has much greater participation from industry, which is a big shift from our original user base in academic research.

Was there a point in time when you realized ROS was reaching critical mass?

Gariepy: To be honest, I never had a “we’ve arrived” moment. Instead, I had a certainty we would get there back in 2010. Our company had done this big survey of how robotics researchers worked back when we first started, and the focus on community and user experience that Steve Cousins, Brian Gerkey, and team had built was completely different from everything which had gone before. Once we decided to switch to ROS in 2010, we never looked back.

Gerkey: For me the tipping point was May of 2012 when we hosted the first ROSCon. We were asking people to spend their weekend in the bowels of a hotel conference center talking about open-source robot software, which was, to say the least, a niche topic. I honestly had no idea whether anybody would show up. In the end we had over 200 attendees, which still amazes me today.

Why was OSRF the best idea you ever had, and why is this the worst idea you ever had?

Gariepy: Best idea: [Gestures broadly] Worst idea: It continues to rub in how far I’ve fallen as a software developer. C++17 terrifies me.

Koenig: OSRF was the brainchild of Brian; my best idea related to OSRF was tagging along with Brian, which allowed Gazebo to grow into a popular and widely used robotics simulator. It was the worst idea because now there are a lot of users of Gazebo.

What about ROS (or ROS users) scares you?

Gariepy: The ROS wiki.

Gerkey: The number of deployed robots that are still out there running long-ago EOL’d versions of ROS.

What has been your dream for OSRF/ROS/Gazebo, and have you achieved that dream? If not, why not, and if so, what’s next?

Koenig: My original dream for Gazebo was to have fun while making a useful tool for other roboticists. That dream has grown to providing a first-class simulation application that streamlines robotic development and lowers the barrier to entry into robotics. It’s a good dream because it never quite ends.

Gariepy: Even before I knew about ROS, I’ve always believed that there would never be one single company which would be the “best” in robotics in its entirety. Robotics will change the world (in the literal sense, not the Silicon Valley sense). We all need to work together. Open Robotics has made this community of developers a reality, but we still have quite a ways to go before the full potential of robotics is realized.

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