Under Bill Gates’ leadership in the early 2000s, Microsoft was gung-ho about robotics. Gates predicted in 2007 that robotics would be the next hot field. He had a vision of a robot in every home. Unfortunately, the company’s robotics wheels fell off after Gates left Microsoft in 2008.
But it appears Microsoft is looking to correct its mis-steps. Microsoft announced at ROSCon 2018 in Madrid, Spain that it is working with Open Robotics and the ROS Industrial Consortium (ROS-I) to bring the Robot Operating System (ROS) to Windows 10. The ROS developer community has built workarounds for Windows, but official support of ROS Melodic Morenia on Windows 10 should make things a lot easier. Getting ROS to work on Windows 10 right now is kludgy at best.
It appears ROS for Windows is an opportunity for Microsoft to further expose its Azure cloud platform, and associated products, to the vast number of ROS developers around the world. The release is being called “experimental” at this point, but be assured Microsoft, Open Robotics, and ROS-I are committed to making this work.
“We’re looking forward to bringing the intelligent edge to robotics by bringing advanced features like hardware-accelerated Windows Machine Learning, computer vision, Azure Cognitive Services, Azure IoT cloud services, and other Microsoft technologies to home, education, commercial, and industrial robots,” says Lou Amadio, Microsoft’s principal software engineer for Windows IoT, who is also on the ROS 2 Technical Steering Committee.
Microsoft will host the Windows builds for ROS1, and shortly ROS2, as well as provide documentation, development, and deployment solutions for Windows. To date, ROS has been running OS’ such as Linux and an experimental version of MacOS. To get started using ROS for Windows and ROS with Azure, check out the guide here.
“As robots have advanced, so have the development tools. We see robotics with artificial intelligence as universally accessible technology to augment human abilities … [and] this development will bring the manageability and security of Windows 10 IoT Enterprise to the innovative ROS ecosystem,” Amadio says.
Microsoft’s robotics history
Perhaps you recall Gates’ prediction about robotics being the next hot field. Tandy Trower, currently head of Hoaloha Robotics, steered Gates down the robotics path. The company’s first investment in robotics was Microsoft Robotics Developer Studio (MRDS), which was first released in 2006. It was a robotics development and software package. It was released about one year before Willow Garage announced ROS, but clearly never gained traction.
Trower tells The Robot Report he had “met several times with Willow Garage execs, exploring potential areas where we could collaborate. However, their focus at that time was primarily on the development of their PR2 robot.”
But things fell apart after Gates left in 2008 to focus on his foundation. Trower left one year later after a disagreement with Microsoft execs about the company’s robotics strategy. Three years later in March 2012, the last MRDS update was published. And in 2014, Microsoft’s robotics group officially shut down.
ROS for Windows: embracing open source
There was once a time when Microsoft was anti open source. In 2001, Microsoft’s then-CEO Steve Ballmer said “Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches. That’s the way that the license works.”
Ironically, many robots run on Linux, but Microsoft’s had a change of heart over the years. It joined the Linux foundation in 2016 and has since become one of the leading contributors to GitHub. In 2016, for example, Microsoft had 16,419 contributors to open-source projects on GitHub, putting it a ahead of Facebook’s 15,682.
In fact, Microsoft was contributing to GitHub so often that it went out and purchased the world’s leading software development platform for $7.5 billion. At the time of the acquisition, GitHub had more than 28 million developers, which are now tied much closer to Microsoft’s development tools. ROS has some popular repositories on GitHub, which is another reason the ROS for Windows news makes sense.
Microsoft also partnered with Qualcomm in May 2018 to jointly create a vision AI developer kit. The device, which enables on-device inferencing for AI on the edge, runs on Qualcomm’s Vision Intelligence Platform for on-device edge AI/compute and takes advantage of Azure Machine Learning. Again, this is part of Microsoft’s plan to embrace the development community and make sure Azure is OS-agnostic and plays nicely with many different platforms.
Joining ROS-I Consortium
Microsoft also announced it’s joining the ROS-I Consortium, whose mission is to extend the advanced capabilities of ROS and robotics to manufacturing environments. Matt Robinson, Program Manager ROS-Industrial Consortium Americas, tells The Robot Report, some of ROS-I’s OEM partners have been calling for an official version of ROS for Windows.
“Anyone who has worked in a factory or industrial setting knows that most of the tools that run the operation run on Windows, or “boxes,” and a lot of the contemporary tools we use to set up robotic systems today also run on Windows.”
“So we see this as a real breakthrough to enable more rapid and broader acceptance. As the announcement details, there is still an understanding that Linux will be a part of the solution, and for specific applications may still be the solution, so working with Microsoft on this latest initiative has been a great experience, and we look forward to future collaborations relating to ROS applications running on Windows 10 IoT and leveraging Azure where it makes sense.”