Japan’s Robot Developers Go Linux

Linux is poised to claim a major victory: the bourgeoning market for robot software. The battle is not over yet, but if developments in Japan are any indication, Linux will rule the world of robots.

The stakes are high. Carmaker Honda believes that robots will become its most important business. If Honda and other proponents are correct, the size of the robotics industry could end up overtaking the PC industry.

Japan has suffered from the longest economic slump ever, but this has not stopped the country’s industrial giants from investing millions in developing consumer robots.

Eye-catching robots like Sony’s Aibo and Honda’s Asimo have grabbed most of the headlines, but Japanese companies are developing practical robots that will be cheap, convenient and ubiquitous — and they will be powered by Linux.

Robots Enter the Mainstream

Early next year, Japanese electronics maker Sanyo will launch “Hopis,” a medical robot designed for the consumer market. Hopis looks like a toy but is packed with electronics — a speech synthesizer, a digital thermometer, a tonometer to diagnose eye disease, a glucose meter for diabetics and various other sensors.

As an on-site doctor’s assistant, Hopis will be able to question patients in detail and send the answers to a medical center using its built-in wireless Internet connection.

Sanyo believes Hopis will appeal to a broad market, including nursing homes, elderly people living alone and people living in remote areas, among others. The company has not released a price, but mass production could make Hopis a consumer item like a TV set or washing machine. “A robot in every house” seems now to be the battle cry of the Japanese industry.

Japan’s preoccupation with consumer robots is largely driven by economic imperatives. It has an aging population, declining birthrates and a looming labor shortage. Equally important, Korea and China are undermining Japan’s traditional industries, especially consumer electronics and household appliances. Japanese companies are under severe pressure to develop new products.

Labor-Saving Bots

Labor-saving robots are hitting the market in growing numbers. Earlier this year, Fujitsu launched the Maron-1, a sentry robot that can be remotely controlled with an internet-enabled phone.

The robot can send pictures of its surroundings to the owner’s mobile phone. Equipped with electronic ears and eyes as well as proximity sensors, Maron-1 can alert the owner when it detects intruders.

Owners also can instruct Maron-1 to operate various household appliances. The robot sells for US$2,750 and has already been put to work. A condominium developer in southern Japan has equipped all its units with the robot sentry.

Meanwhile, Mitsubishi is targeting the medical market. The company has developed a robot designed to perform many functions that a human nurse can perform. The multifunctional robot, Wakamaru, is 3.3 feet tall, weighs about 50 pounds and, like Maron-1, moves on wheels. It is billed as house sitter, nurse and a “family friend.”

Wakamaru is equipped with a video camera, voice- and face-recognition capabilities, and an always-on Internet connection. The robot can be programmed to remind its “master” to take medicine, and calls for help if it detects unusual sounds or movements in the house. The robot will hit the market early next year with an expected retail price of $14,250.

Embedded Linux

Mitsubishi developed Wakamaru’s software platform with MontaVista Software’s embedded Linux distribution and tool suite. In making the decision to use Linux, the company cited the sophisticated software base and networking capabilities of Linux. Reliability was another consideration. Wakamaru must perform 24 hours a day without crashing.

To bring cost down, Japanese robot engineers looked at the computing model that made the PC a household item. The roadmap seemed simple: Develop a platform like the IBM XT, create a mass market for standard, off-the-shelf components, and let robot developers concentrate on the real issues of robotics, including motion control, aesthetics and artificial intelligence.

The development of a standard robot platform could simply be a matter of time, but Linux cannot yet claim victory. Its main competitors include Microsoft’s CE (which runs on Fujitsu’s Maron-1), and Wind River Systems’ VxWorks.

Real-Time Debate

Tino Lourens, a scientist at Honda’s Research Institute in Tokyo, is unhappy with the current contenders. “At the moment, robotics is mainly control,” said Lourens. “Control requires time reliability. VxWorks is very good, but expensive. RTLinux is good and affordable. But Linux does not guarantee absolute time restrictions.”

Real-time computing is a hot-button issue among robot developers. Definitions of real-time processes have always been more or less vague, but the general industry consensus is that you can measure real-time computing in milliseconds and microseconds (a millionth of a second). The former is sufficient for a robotic lawn mower, while the latter is needed for systems requiring an instantaneous response, like a car’s antilock breaking systems.

Real-time, coupled with reliability, is crucial in factory automation. If a robotic spot welder fails to complete its task within the allowed time, the entire production line could grind to a halt.

Linux the Robot Standard

Linux is not a real-time OS, but it can be “tweaked” to get real-time-like performance. “RTLinux is a subkernel project that augments standard Linux by placing a small RTOS — some would call it merely a multithreaded interrupt handler — ‘underneath’ Linux proper, virtualizing or ‘taking over’ the Linux interrupt chain and running Linux as the idle task under RTLinux control,” explains Bill Weinberg, director of strategy at MontaVista.

Weinberg argues that RTLinux’s performance is on a par with traditional real-time operating systems, in that it offers single-digit interrupt latency that comes close to “real” real-time operating systems like ITRON. But the latter, much like VxWorks, has a smaller footprint. RTLinx is measured in megabytes; ITRON and VxWorks are measured in kilobytes.

“I look forward to stronger competition on the OS market in general, which I hope will lead to better and cheaper or free products,” said Honda’s Lourens. “But if you ask me whether Linux will become the de facto standard in robotics, the answer is yes.”

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