Open Source Robots are Now Competing in the Cloud

by Ostatic Staff - Aug. 06, 2013

For almost 15 years, some of the more interesting work in the field of robotics has been driven by open source efforts.  Last year, the Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF) took shape, which is a well funded and organized central entity that can provide oversight to some of the most important open source robotics efforts. The organization recently helped the U.S. Defense Department host its Virtual Robotics Challenge (VRC) entirely in the cloud, with participants in the competition competing from remote locations using SoftLayer Technologies' cloud computing platform.

The Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF) is a non-profit organization charged with supporting the development, distribution and adoption of open source software for use in robotics research, education and product development. It arose from Willow Garage, a robotics project that originated at Stanford University.  (One of Willow Garage's robots is shown in the photo here.)

Competitors in the DARPA Virtual Robotics Challenge were asked to develop software to enable a simulated robot to execute tasks similar to the activities that might be required of emergency personnel in a disaster response situation. The big twist in this year's competition is that the teams could actually demonstrate their robots and participate in the cloud on a SoftLayer platform. 

According to an OSRF statement:

"OSRF selected SoftLayer for the VRC because the level of simulation the competition demanded needed machines to speak to each other at hyper-fast speeds. SoftLayer offered power and speed, as well as a raw compute offering without any extra virtualization. SoftLayer was the only dedicated platform that could shorten the communication loop between machines to 1k/second, thereby offering the power and speed necessary for complex robotics simulation."

"The first Virtual Robotics Competition is an exclamation point in the evolution of the cloud, testing its performance limits and highlighting the need for bare metal servers and virtual environments to work in tandem," said SoftLayer chief scientist, Nathan Day, in a statement. "SoftLayer's platform can be uniquely tailored to meet requirements across the full spectrum of server needs and we are thrilled to work with Open Source Robotics Foundation in this premier event." 

If you're unfamiliar with SoftLayer's cloud technology, IBM recently acquired it. It's also worth noting that the OSRF did not choose Amazon's cloud platform for hosting the robotics competition.

In preparation for the Virtual Robotics Challenge, OSRF configured SoftLayer's platform into a highly specialized format so that teams were able to control their own server constellation apart from other teams, the OSRF statement notes. Through SoftLayer's API, each team was given five connected servers, including two high-end NVIDIA dual Intel Sandy Bridge servers with GPU, isolated from any others in the competition. Teams were able to reload their own servers as needed, and OSRF could reset constellations to their virgin state once each team finished its simulation. 

Given the fact that open source robotics efforts are going on around the world, it looks likely that more competitions will take place in the cloud, as online events. "SoftLayer was a true partner in hosting the VRC Simulator and worked with our team closely to pre-test machines for the competition," said Brian Gerkey, CEO of OSRF. "The VRC was an unprecedented initiative and required technology partners that were willing to go the extra mile to assure that this event made its mark in history."