Historically, information technology solutions have been most affordable when application and systems interfaces are based on open standards. Mobile service robotics solutions are no exception. When multiple vendors offer products and solutions based on open standards—instead of relying on one or two proprietary vendors—customers can effectively improve the quality, reduce the cost, and mitigate the risk of deploying mobile service robots and any accompanying security applications and systems. Although mobile service robotics is still in its early days, open standards are already contributing to cost reductions in development and deployment.
Let’s examine the alphabet soup of standards currently in play in the field of mobile service robotics, how they interoperate with each other, and why they are critical for vendors and consumers alike in the effort to move the robotics industry forward.
JAUS: Communications Interoperability
The Joint Architecture for Unmanned Systems specification, now working its way through standards committees, promises an unprecedented level of communications interoperability among robotic devices and their command consoles, generally known as operations control units.
JAUS, according to the working group’s web site, is “…an architecture for the domain of unmanned systems. JAUS is an upper level design for the interfaces within the domain of unmanned vehicles. It is a component-based, message-passing architecture that specifies data formats and methods of communication among computing nodes. It defines messages and component behaviors that are independent of technology, computer hardware, operator use, and vehicle platforms and isolated from mission.”
In short, JAUS is a standardized message set enabling external and internal communication between unmanned systems. JAUS uses the Society of Automotive Engineers Generic Open Architecture (SAE GOA) framework to classify interfaces. When it’s complete and ratified as a standard, JAUS, running over TCP/IP, will be available as a communications protocol for any standards-based robotic systems.
JAUS update: At its January 19 meeting in Salt Lake City, the JAUS working group made a series of decisions that will make JAUS a viable option for adoption by the SAE. In doing so, JAUS, which had been largely military in usage and implementation, was opened up to non-military uses so that commercial vendors can adopt the JAUS standard as well.
SAE: Plug and Play Components and Subsystems
The Society of Automotive Engineers, or SAE, has a hand in specifying virtually all aspects of hardware and software systems—from farm tractors to data buses. In the robotics field, a group within the SAE has evolved hardware and software specifications and developed standards so that various subsystems can communicate with each other on any given robot. The specifications may be electrical or mechanical, such as taking existing optical network components and melding them into a standardized way to set up remote visual sensors and video cameras.
To build a robot, you need components and subsystems that are reasonably plug and play. Motor systems and drives need to have electrical interoperability. SAE international is defining standards for these different components to work together.
Object Management Group: Management Interoperability
The Object Management Group (OMG) defines a means of managing robotics systems under its Model Driven Architecture and Unified Modeling Language. Under OMG guidelines, a robot is treated just like any other computer system. For example, on my desktop, I have an OMG-compliant agent sending data on status and vital signs, which can be read by any standard Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) management console. This information is conveyed to the console by the Desktop Management Interface (DMI), which has been a standard for nearly a decade
Similarly, we would expect to see a Robotics Management Interface, which would convey information about a specific robot back to an Operations Control Unit. The robot management agent would report on unique identifiers for a given robot, list the services it offers, which operating system and software application versions are running, which version of JAUS is supported, specific applications in use (such as vision recognition, sensor array, still camera, etc.). Most importantly, the robot would want to advertise its exact location using GPS coordinates.
One factor that may accelerate OMG specifications: The Japanese Robotics Association is working in conjunction with OMG to show its proposed object management implementation. The JRA revealed its implementation the week of January 31, 2005. Members are evaluating the proposed standard and will comment on it at the group’s next meeting.
The OMG recognizes robotics as an important emerging technology. According to the group’s web site, the OMG will:
- Adapt and extend OMG technologies that apply to the specific domain of robotics systems where no current baseline specifications exist, such as MDA for Robotics. The object technology is not solely limited to software but is extended to real objects. This effort promotes the use of OMG technologies in various markets.
- Promote mutual understanding between the robotics community and the OMG community.
- Endeavor to collaborate with other organizations for standardization, such as the one for home information appliances, and make an open effort to increase interoperability in the field of robotics.
- Coordinate with the appropriate OMG subgroups and the Architecture Board, for technology areas that overlap with other OMG Task Forces, to determine where the work will be accomplished.
IEEE: Subsystems Including Navigation, Localization and Mapping
The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, one of the grandfathers of standards organizations, has defined such fundamentals as the Ethernet topology and WiFi wireless communications protocols. In robotics, various IEEE working groups serve as a means for the robotics community to interact, and helps it develop to a common platform.
The IEEE hosts conferences and publishes works that define standards for automation, deal with electromagnetic issues, wireless communications and robotics control. In the area of artificial intelligence, the IEEE serves as the publishing point for researchers to present materials and define standards.
The IEEE works in concert with the SAE, the OMG and the JAUS working group to arrive at the most efficient and least complex way to implement robotic standards. For example, the SAE refers back to IEEE standards when at all possible. If an IEEE standard exists, the SAE will use it. Although the IEEE has no robotics standards, it does specify several key elements used in robotics. These include wireless LAN specs, fiber optic specs, maximum electromagnetic interference levels, and all 802.11 standards. In these cases, the IEEE sets the standard and the JAUS working group will refer to it.
Understanding the Relationships
All of the organizations described above have a hand in standardizing robotic behavior. Looking at it from the ground up, the basic robot components and safety standards would be defined by the IEEE and the SAE. Then, moving on to communications protocols, the IEEE’s TCP/IP standard would carry JAUS communications signals. Robotic usage, defined by the JAUS working group, examines behavior and, in parallel with OMG, looks at defining and implementing a management console and remote agents to see, manage and configure robots. Given the SAE’s history, which has tended to adopt international standards where applicable, it seems reasonable to assume that JAUS would adopt the OMG standard.
The Case for Conformance Testing
For standards to be widely adopted by the vendor community, it is necessary for vendors to have a standard they can work toward and implement. To do so, they need an independent third-party organization that can verify that they conform to a given standard.
In the case of robotics, with standards still very much in flux, now is the time to start thinking about conformance and interoperability testing, particularly in the case of JAUS and OMG, which will have much to do with the actual behavior and communications of future robotic systems.
Conformance testing is used to determine if an implementation accurately meets the requirements of a standard or specification. While conformance testing may include testing for functionality and interoperability, JAUS and OMG conformance testing should also determine whether an implementation meets the requirements or criteria called out in the specification.
Specifically, a JAUS standards testing organization would:
- Verify basic interoperability among robotic platforms and control systems.
- Accelerate the system level integration and testing process.
- Reduce risk during the system level integration and testing process.
- Eliminate the variable results and duplicative cost of each vendor and customer developing their own conformance and interoperability tests.
- Reduce manufacturing and development costs and project risk, since a test-driven development approach will reduce the development cycle-time. Each step of an implementation can be unit tested, allowing regression testing and providing the ground for an incremental implementation.
- Accelerate the creation of in-house and independent conformance and interoperability testing departments and services.
Expect to see a JAUS conformance standards testing entity emerge in the next six to eight months, as the standard is adopted by the JAUS working group and vendors look for the best way to assure their customers of JAUS compliance.
About the Author
Lloyd Spencer is president and CEO of CoroWare, a systems integration firm that specializes in integrating mobile service robotic applications with off-the-shelf hardware and standard operating systems. He can be reached at .