It's not sexy, but the next big thing for robots is starting to look like warehouse logistics. The potential market is huge, and a number of startups are developing mobile platforms to automate dull and tedious order fulfillment tasks. Transporting products is just one problem worth solving: picking those products off of shelves is another. Magazino is a German startup that's developing a robot called Toru that can grasp individual objects off of warehouse shelves, a particularly tricky task that Magazino is tackling with ROS.
Moritz Tenorth is Head of Software Development at Magazino. In his ROSCon talk, Moritz describes Magazino's Toru as "a mobile pick and place robot that works together with humans in a shared environment," which is exactly what you'd want in an e-commerce warehouse. The reason that picking is a hard problem, as Moritz explains, is perception coupled with dynamic environments and high uncertainty: if you want a robot that can pick a wide range of objects, it needs to be able to flexibly understand and react to its environment; something that robots are notoriously bad at. ROS is particularly well suited to this, since it's easy to intelligently integrate as much sensing as you need into your platform.
Magazino's experience building and deploying their robots has given them a unique perspective on warehouse commercialization with ROS. For example, databases and persistent storage are crucial (as opposed to a focus on runtime), and real-time control turns out to be less important than being able to quickly and easily develop planning algorithms and reducing system complexity. Software components in the ROS ecosystem can vary wildly in quality and upkeep, although ROS-Industrial is working hard to develop code quality metrics. Magazino is also working on remote support and analysis tools, and trying to determine how much communication is required in a multi-robot system, which native ROS isn't very good at.
Even with those (few) constructive criticisms in mind, Magazino says that ROS is a fantastic way to quickly iterate on both software and hardware in parallel, especially when combined with 3D printed prototypes for testing. Most importantly, Magazino feels comfortable with ROS: it has a familiar workflow, versatile build system, flexible development architecture, robust community that makes hiring a cinch, and it's still (somehow) easy to use.
Next up: Michael Ferguson (Fetch Robotics)