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RoboDevelopment Show Highlights Software Behind the Hardware

What's the first thing you think of when hear the word "robot?" Robby from the 1956 SF classic Forbidden Planet? Astro Boy, the first Japanese anime character on American television? The Roomba? In other words, hardware?

Fair enough, but sponsors of the annual RoboDevelopment Conference and Expo want you to remember that, without some incredibly complex software, even the most sophisticated soccer playing droid is just an anthropomorphic doorstop.

The conference, held at the San Jose, Calif., Convention Center last week (Oct. 25-26), was billed as "a multifaceted educational forum and trade show" focused on the technical issues involved with the design and development of commercial robotic products. Not surprisingly, the show featured lots of robots, from real-world, production-line industrial devices to the University of Massachusetts' monitor-faced, Segway-like uBot to Hanson Robotics' cute/creepy Zeno humanoid character bot (with the Astro Boy doo and Chucky-from-Child's Play vibe).

But this was also a show for software developers, who must work hand-in-hand with electrical and mechanical engineers on this unique computing platform. In fact, the world's largest maker of software, Microsoft, is now providing a software development platform for the robotics community. Dubbed the Microsoft Robotics Studio, the platform is a Windows-based environment comprising a run-time engine, a set of authoring tools, and a bundle of services and samples to get coders started.

During his conference keynote, Tandy Tower, general manager of the Microsoft Robotics Group, compared the rise of robotics to the evolution of PCs. "It's not that most people in the industry think that robotics is exactly like the PC industry," Trower said, "but there are some amazing similarities: The excitement and anticipation that something significant is starting to happen. The investment in terms of mind power going into solving very hard problems. And the increasing accessibility of the technology, both on the hardware and software sides."

For Object Interface Systems (OIS), the RoboDevelopment event was all about the software. The Herndon, Va.-based provider of communications middleware for real-time and embedded systems unveiled its own robotics platform at the show. The OIS Robotics Platform is an communications infrastructure designed to simplify the development of robotics systems.

The OIS platform is an off-the-shelf solution designed to enable the processing of the "massive" amounts of programming and data involved when dealing with visual, audio and sensory input. It's based on three of the company's CORBA-based communications middleware products: ORBexpress RT, DSP and FPGA. The platform supports a number of hardware architectures used for robotics like general purpose processors (GPPs), field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) and digital signal processors (DSPs). According to the company, this multiple-device support lets robotics designers develop logic once on a common platform and then deploy to specific device hardware.

CORBA (common object request broker architecture) is a well-known and widely used standard. Sometimes referred to as a "wrapper," it's a mechanism that enables software components written in different languages and residing on different machines to work together. It uses an interface definition language (IDL) to specify the interfaces and object request brokers to make the program calls.

"CORBA has long been a standard of robotics systems," said OIS Senior Vice President Joe Jacob in a statement released at the show. "CORBA IDL...allows systems designers to optimize overall throughput of their system without rewriting their communications protocols every time they move features between GPPs, DSPs and FPGAs." By uniformly supporting all these processor types, Jacob said, the OIS platform promotes code reuse -- a key advantage in the development of robotics systems in, say, automotive assembly plants, which often require field upgradeability of their robotics systems.

During his conference keynote, Gostai founder Jean-Christophe Baillie, showed off his company's flagship product, the Universal Real-Time Behavior Interface (URBI), which is used to control hardware and software components, and which the company bills as a "universal robotic software platform."

The URBI is a scripting language coupled with the C++ classes called "UObjects." The UObject distributed component architecture allows the integration of C++ objects in the language as linked or remotely running components. It also interfaces with Java and Matlab, and it runs on Windows, Linux and Mac OS.

Based in Paris, Gostai focuses on developing tools and software for artificial intelligence applications in robotics. But ease of use is a strong company value, Baillie told attendees. "We don't like that strong barrier between the experts and hobbyists," he said. "We bridge the gap between those two things."

The URBI differs from scripting languages such as Python and Perl, Baillie said, because it integrates parallelism into the language semantics, making parallel and event-based programming easier. URBI is based on a client-server architecture, which allows programmers to run objects remotely in a trivial way. Gostai doesn't intend URBI to replace any language or tool, Baillie said, but to work with them. It acts as a kind of "glue" to connect systems in a parallel and event-driven way, letting developers to define objects in pure URBI r to plug UObjects directly into the kernel to add these classes to the language. The platform also lets developers unplug the UObject from the kernel and run it as a remote, autonomous application, taking the IP address of the URBI Engine as a parameter, Baillie explained.

The URBI is currently used with AIBO, the HRP2 humanoid, K-Team robots and Webots, among others. According to the company, more than 20 universities are now using the platform. More information about the URBI is available at URBIforge.

The RoboDevelopment Conference and Expo was sponsored by Robotics Trends, which billed the show as "the first technical event for the robotics industry that is focused on the design and development of commercial mobile robots and intelligent systems products." This year's event drew an estimated 800 attendees.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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