This is a guest post. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not represent positions of IEEE Spectrum or the IEEE.
Ten years ago, while struggling to bring the vision of the “Linux of Robotics” to reality, I was inspired by the origin stories of other transformative endeavors. In this post I want to share some untold parts of the early story of the Robot Operating System, or ROS, to hopefully inspire those of you currently pursuing your “crazy” ideas.
This origin story starts when Eric Berger, my partner of seven years on this project, and I were starting our PhDs at Stanford.
The impetus for ROS came accidentally when we were searching around for a compelling robotics project to tackle for our PhDs. We talked to countless folks and found the same pattern repeated over and over by those setting out to innovate on robotics software: They spent 90 percent of their time re-writing code others had written before and building a prototype test-bed. Then the last 10 percent of their efforts, at most, were spent on innovation.
ROS (and PR1) was our solution to eliminate that massive amount of wasted time. The plan at the time was to find donors to fund the building of 10 identical robots, get them out to 10 universities and hire a team of software engineers to build the un-sexy but critical common plumbing software and developer tools that would enable innovators in robotics software to build on each other’s progress.
To fund what we were calling the Stanford Personal Robotics Program, we met with everyone who would talk to us. Our goal was to raise US $4 million, what we estimated it would cost to hire the software engineers to support ROS and to build 10 copies of the robot. We faced a lot of tough questions over the year we were fundraising. But at the end of the day we were a couple of young grad students with no credibility. I am not being humble when I say that. That is literally what out first funders told us when they wrote us our first check. That check was for 50k.
The check was from Joanna Hoffman and Alain Rossmann (yes, that Joanna Hoffman). They told us to build as much credibility as we could with that 50k and go from there.
We used that money plus some matching money we begged from a couple Stanford Deans to build PR1. We used PR1 to get support for the project from the world’s leading robotics software R&D teams. We also gave PR1 to the Stanford AI Robotteam and got our first lesson in just how high the bar was for a robotics software development platform to be truly useful.
But probably most importantly we took PR1 to our friend’s house and teleoperated it to make some really compelling videos. And then we were back to raising money.