OSRF Forms New Corporation, Partners With Toyota Research

A big donation and new partnership help ensure a robust future for the Robot Operating System

4 min read

Toyota Partner Robot
Photo: Evan Ackerman/IEEE Spectrum

Today, the Open Source Robotics Foundation announced a whole bunch of stuff, including a big pile of money from Toyota Research, what is probably an even bigger pile of money from Toyota Research, and the formation of the for-profit Open Source Robotics Corporation. That last thing might sound a little worrisome, since corporation-ness and open source-itude are often at odds, but we checked in with OSRF CEO Brian Gerkey, who explained how it’s all going to work.

The most straightforward bit of news is that the Toyota Research Institute (TRI) is making a charitable donation of US $1 million to the Open Source Robotics Foundation to “advance the development and adoption of open source robotics software.” In other words, TRI thinks that OSRF has been doing pretty good work with ROS and Gazebo over the last couple years, and they’re supporting that vision financially. Since it’s a donation, OSRF can use that money however it wants, meaning that it’s going to benefit the development of ROS and Gazebo for everyone.

From the beginning, OSRF has been a non-profit corporation, which is why it’s subsisted mostly on government contracts and donations from companies. As a non-profit, OSRF isn’t allowed to get paid directly for doing substantial amounts of work for specific companies. This causes two problems: First, it means that OSRF isn’t as effective at making improvements to ROS that are targeted at robots doing commercial and industrial stuff, which are areas where ROS has a lot of potential to expand. And that leads to the second problem, which is that OSRF can’t get financial support from partnerships with companies that (presumably) want to invest some of those aforementioned piles of money into making ROS better for themselves, and by extension, for the rest of us.

“OSRF will continue to create and distribute open source and free-of-charge applications for the robotics community, including ROS and Gazebo.”

The brand new Open Source Robotics Corporation (OSRC) is a for-profit subsidiary of the Open Source Robotics Foundation. Basically, OSRC exists so that other companies can pay money for core ROS development, new features, or custom projects, without jeopardizing the non-profit status of its parent company, OSRF. As the press release very specifically and deliberately says, “OSRF will continue to create and distribute open source and free-of- charge applications for the robotics community, including ROS and Gazebo.” This is just going to make sure they have the resources they need to keep on doing so.

Speaking of resources, the final part of the announcement is that the Toyota Research Institute has “joined forces” with OSRC “to expand the development of both open source and proprietary tools for Toyota’s fast-growing robotics and automated vehicle research initiatives.” Specifically, or as specific as the press releases are willing to be:

“TRI signed a consulting agreement with the newly-formed Open Source Robotics Corporation. As part of the two-year agreement, TRI will leverage the expertise of OSRC’s engineering team, engaging them in a variety of initiatives.”

We’re hoping to hear back from TRI about what “a variety of initiatives” are, but we did manage to speak with Brian Gerkey, OSRF’s CEO, about what’s going on on their end:

IEEE Spectrum: What’s the Open Source Robotics Corporation, and why does it exist all of a sudden?

Brian Gerkey: What has changed over the last couple years is that we’re getting more interest from industry to financially support our work. This is a good thing, it’s showing that there’s commercial interest out there for using ROS and Gazebo in products. There are certain constraints associated with having a [non-profit] status that make it difficult to really do business in a serious way with industry. Our goal here is to simultaneously continue the mission of the foundation and continue to develop the open source work and support our community, but at the same time, have the ability to partner with industry, where they’re interested in contributing to that open source platform and perhaps, in some cases, applying it to their particular problems.

What we want to do is essentially continue doing the same work, but do it in a way that’s supporting this emerging industrial user base that we have, and be able to get their financial support without endangering the [non-profit] status of the foundation. We want to keep that as it is, but really start primarily operating day-to-day out of the corporation. What we’re doing now, we knew quite a while ago that we were going to do this, and this arrangement with TRI is causing us to execute this plan we had on the shelf.

Will most ROS users notice that anything is different going forward?

They should notice no difference at all. 

What should we expect from the partnerships between OSRF, OSRC, and TRI?

TRI is making a $1 million charitable contribution to OSRF. It will be at the discretion of OSRF to spend those funds in support of its mission. In addition, as part of a separate arrangement, TRI is entering into a substantial, multi-year research and development contract with OSRC for services related to ROS and Gazebo. 

Cars and robotics are two domains in which we expect that TRI’s efforts will rely in some non-trivial way on ROS and Gazebo. The role we’ll play is making sure that ROS and Gazebo are improved, extended, modified, and supported in a way that will help them achieve their research goals on those two broad domains. 

Will the work that OSRC does for TRI be contributed back into the ROS community?

What the OSRF and OSRC team is very good at doing is building open source software and contributing it back to the community. It’s that specialty that TRI has come to us to leverage. We anticipate that we will be making substantial contributions back to the open source community.

In addition to TRI, there are plenty of other companies that have already contributed to the health and future of ROS, like Qualcomm, NVIDIA, and Bosch. But, as Gerkey explained, OSRF has had to place significant limits on that kind of thing because of their non-profit status. OSRC, on the other hand, will be able to accept a much more substantial amount of support, while also providing industry with all of the help that it needs in a much more direct way.

As far as we can tell, this is good news for everyone, whether you’re a casual ROS user or an enormous multinational conglomerate. And if you’re the latter, hey, have you considered sponsoring a robotics blog lately?

Also, don’t forget that ROSCon 2016 is happening next month in Seoul, South Korea. There’s going to be some cool stuff announced there that we can’t tell you about yet, but it’s going to be awesome. Check out the program here.

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