Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Willow Garage’s Legacy, a Blessing or a Decade’s Long Detour in the Evolution of Robotics?

One result of my not being able to work on electronics for the last year was that I had a chance to ponder other questions. One of these questions was wondering about, "whatever happened to Willow Garage?" There was a time about a decade ago it was heralded as one of the great innovators of the robotics community. Then it just sort of disappeared. It had a number of spinoffs; but none of them ever turned into, what you might call an above average commercial success. It seems that the software innovation ROS has been left as Willow Garage’s only remaining legacy to the robotics community.

Despite WG’s universal acclaim, there was always something about that operation that bothered me. I was never able to quite put my finger on it. So with time on my hands, I “googled” Willow Garage to see if I could find any links to posts that might have made critical comments about it; to see if anyone else might have picked up on what I might be sensing.


As critical and contrary-for-the-sake-of-contrariness as some people can be on the Internet, you would’ve thought that there would have been at least a few critical posts or articles to be found.

So what was I seeing in WG that everyone else seems to have missed? I think I finally have an answer that I can articulate. So here it goes.

The formation of Willow Garage brought together some of Silicon Valley’s top-tier talent. Not only was WG’s initial formation generously self-funded, but over time it was able to attract even more venture capital to fund its ambitious creative efforts. The enthusiasm that WG brought to the robotics community attracted a cadre of dedicated and very talented engineers and programmers. You might be forgiven if you started to see WG as a sort of modern-day robotics Camelot.

But here’s the nagging question; if this is the level of funding and talent it takes to do robotics, then how will robotics ever be able to leave the engineering lab and move out to the farm field, the construction site, or the logging or mining operation?

For example, whatever commercial value an agricultural robotic-field-worker might have to a farmer, it must compete with its $25K a year human counterpart. This basic cost of employment puts a severe cost-constraint on any robotics system intended to be used in the field.

The second and more critical issue is that the people who will be selling, operating, servicing and maintaining field-deployed robots in the future, will by necessity be the same people that are doing those jobs now as regards to farm, construction, logging, or mining equipment. In other words, any robotic system deployed in the field, that requires the additional technical support of a team of Stanford University engineering graduate students, is a nonstarter.

To put it in another way, WG’s approach to robotics completely bypassed the questions of cost, manufacturing, operation, service, and maintenance; all absolutely critical elements for any robotic system to be commercially viable in the field.

What a field-deployed robot needs to be is modular. Its mechanical construction needs to be based on interchangeable subassemblies. And its computational architecture should come in the form of pre-programmed bricks or modules connected together using a single shared serial interface to form a system of distributed intelligence.

This form of construction allows for easy manufacture, easy maintenance, and easy service. Programming is not part of this paradigm. If one wants to change some functionality in a robot, just swap in a different module. The upside of this kind of construction is that this is the level of service, maintenance, and rebuild competency that already exists within the workforce currently employed in the industries of farming, construction, logging, and mining.

This last observation returns us to the question of ROS as being a useful addition to the robotics community’s programming toolkit. Sadly, to run ROS is to become dependent on a particular type of supporting hardware architecture; a computational architecture which is the complete antithesis of what needs to be implemented before robots will leave the engineering lab and proceed out to the field.

So this is my pondering, will ROS, rather than the boon to industry it was held out to be, in the years ahead, turn out to be a decade’s long detour in the evolution of field-deployable robotics?

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