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Robotics and Ubuntu rewind 2021

Dec 17, 2021

A year packed with news and events. A year where great competitions came to an end. A year that made us dream with new robots. 2021 inspired us to reach new heights and pursue new breakthroughs. 

As we power millions of robotics developers with Ubuntu and our robotics open source tools, we present a recap of what marked this year. Discover the victories and defeats of 2021. Those product launches that made the front page. Our best tutorials and whitepapers. And the work of the RD community that captured our imagination. This was 2021!

Competitions advanced the field of robotics

This year marked the end of two great competitions that aimed to accelerate the field of robotics in two edge scenarios; subterranean navigation and high speed driving. 

September hosted the finals of the DARPA Subterranean Challenge, a competition that searched for novel approaches to rapidly map, navigate, and search underground environments during time-sensitive combat operations or disaster response scenarios. DARPA first announced its Subterranean (SubT) Challenge in 2018 to support open source robotics.

Team CERBERUS was the winner of this three-year-long subterranean challenge! 

October hosted the finals of the Indy Autonomous Challenge. Nine teams raced in Indy to see who was the fastest. A total of 21 universities from 9 countries competed, programming Dallara AV-21 racecars to win and take home $1.5M in prizes. The year-long challenge for innovating the field of autonomous vehicles started with more than 25 teams and finished with nine finalists.

TUM took the glory after an exciting race. If you missed it, here is our recap.

Ubuntu was present in both events, powering the teams, and the winners of both challenges! We couldn’t be prouder of this success. Open source robotics won – and so did you.

Robotics product launches that made headlines

Outside manufacturing and warehouses, robotics is still an emerging market. Its complexity in fields such as healthcare, agriculture, social assistance, among others, makes robotics market production something noteworthy. In this section, we will highlight three of the many exciting products that were part of our monthly robotics news.

We have to start with Astro. The home assistant robot developed by Amazon caused commotion among the robotics community. There has been much speculation about the development of Astro; unhappy engineers rushed to meet a deadline with a technology that was not ready. Many are complaining about the device’s lack of robustness. Privacy is a constant issue. Plus, it invites the question: who is putting the beer in the robot’s cup holder? But like it or not, Amazon did something for the whole home robotics segment; it is educating consumers. Learn more about the impact of Astro in your work. 

Xiaomi’s CyberDog also created a buzz, as an affordable open source four-legged robot. Late this year, the Chinese tech giant unveiled CyberDog, which the firm claims will improve the robot development environment and promote the development of the robot industry. In comparison with the famous Spot, the base price for CyberDog is $1,540 USD. This affordable price will allow many research institutes and startups to build and accelerate the development of robotics applications for four-legged robots. It is also open source, using ROS and Ubuntu. Learn more about Cyberdog.

Finally, we cannot finish without mentioning UBTECH Walker X. Making humanoid robots is not easy. Targeting a humanoid robot for domestic use is still quixotic at this point. Maybe this new robot from UBTECH isn’t exactly a robot butler yet, but it is certainly a big promise from a global AI and humanoid robotics company. Remember, taking this commercial risk has also accelerated the field. We welcome Walker X and we wish it a successful journey! Learn more about Walker X in our July news edition.

ROS Ubuntu: a partnership that is just starting  

Do you know that ROS started with Ubuntu? The very first release of ROS, Box Turtle, was built on top of Ubuntu Hardy. For the past decade, ROS has been natively supported by Ubuntu, which enables innovators to keep pushing the boundaries of robotics. Canonical doesn’t take this responsibility lightly, and continues to work with developers in mind. Now, to accelerate the adoption of robotics in the industry, we marked a stronger engagement with Open Robotics, the maintainer of ROS. 

In April, we established a partnership for providing ROS ESM; a hardened ROS with 10-year security from Open Robotics and Canonical. As a result, users now can take advantage of security maintenance for ROS and a single point of contact to guarantee timely and high-quality fixes from the ROS and Ubuntu experts. 

This partnership aims to support the adoption of ROS in regulated industries, where cybersecurity requirements are a must for product and service providers. Whether you want to be compliant with cybersecurity regulations or reduce operational expenses of maintaining upstream repositories, ROS ESM is here to make your work easier.

Learn more about ROS ESM     

Saying goodbye to ROS Kinetic

This year, the ROS Kinetic release, and its corresponding Ubuntu distribution, Xenial, reached end-of-life (EOL) in April 2021. This means the end of security updates and Common Vulnerabilities and Exposures (CVE) fixes for both ROS and Ubuntu, as well as dependencies such as Python 2.

ROS Kinetic was released in 2016, and it was the second LTS release of ROS. It was among the most widely used and largest distributions, with 1233 repositories. There were a total of 5319 commits averaging 4.3 per active day. It supported newer related components at the time, notably Gazebo 7 and OpenCV 3.

Once more, we want to thank all of you who contributed to making ROS Kinetic a milestone in robotics history.

If you haven’t yet, we encourage you to explore migration options to keep your robot secure and compliant.

Our best whitepaper: Docker ROS

Our best whitepaper is also our 2022 unpopular opinion: Docker doesn’t solve it all. On the contrary, it was designed and is maintained for one main application: elastic cloud operations. That is how it became a thing, and that is how Docker Inc. has been driving its roadmap. 

But because we didn’t have anything better, we started using it for anything and everything. It became our hammer for fixing nails, but we also use it for polishing surfaces, cutting boards, drilling holes, and embedding applications on edge devices. It’s an overstep, an unsupported overstep.

Here is our whitepaper of the year: ROS Docker: When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Our best tutorial: MicroROS on RPi Pico

A combination from heaven. MicroROS allows you to control microcontrollers using the same ROS framework. This enables innovators to easily interconnect microcontrollers with their ROS 2 applications, and with these, use different sensors and actuators. This was our tutorial of the year: getting started with micro-ROS on the Raspberry Pi Pico.

Our best case study: fast-tracks drone infrastructure

The number of use cases for industrial drones has grown exponentially over the last couple of years. The ultimate goal is to build a new flight platform that will empower any business to deploy their drone applications. We worked with SmartDrone to help them overcome the challenges of disparate open-source technologies to create an industrial-grade flight platform fit for almost any drone-based project.

Here is our case study of the year: SmartDrone fast-tracks drone infrastructure revolution with Ubuntu Core

RD projects that we loved

The field of robotics started in labs, and it is in each research project, thesis, and spin out where innovation takes place. Researchers are the heart of our robots, and they all deserve our recognition. Ubuntu is proud to be your ally.

This year, we want to mention two projects that made our headlines and showed amazing research published this year.  

Sometimes greatness comes in small packages. This is what a team of scientists at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) proved. They developed millimetre-sized robots that can be controlled using magnetic fields to perform highly manoeuvrable and dexterous manipulations. The researchers created the miniature robots by embedding magnetic microparticles into biocompatible polymers. These are non-toxic materials that are harmless to humans.

While we have other examples of miniature robots, this one can rotate 43 times faster than them in the critical sixth DoF when their orientation is precisely controlled. They can also be made with ‘soft’ materials and thus can replicate important mechanical qualities. This could pave the way to possible future applications in biomedicine and manufacturing.

We also need to mention the work on robotics implants. One of the biggest challenges for people with type 1 diabetes is the medicine delivery system. Insulin pumps are available commercially, but they require external hardware that delivers the drug through a tube or needle that penetrates the body. 

Researchers at the BioRobotics Institute in Italy published a project that could solve these issues. A robot that replaces or restores physiological processes, and functions entirely inside the gut. The PILLSID (PILl-refiLled implanted System for Intraperitoneal Delivery), is a fully implantable robotic device refillable through ingestible magnetic pills carrying drugs (Incredible, right? Check the diagram!). Once refilled, the device acts as a programmable microinfusion system for precise intraperitoneal delivery. The device weighs 165 grams and is 78 millimetres by 63 millimetres by 35 millimetres.

Finally, the monocopter F-SAM deserves a special mention. Developed by researchers at Singapore University of Technology Design, F-SAM stands for “Foldable Single Actuator Monocopter”. The design is based on samara seeds – those single-wing seed pods that spin down from maple trees. This monocopter can fold up and uses just one single actuator for control. It’ll spin all by itself and do so in a stable and predictable way. If the batteries run out, it will just spin itself gently down, landing like a samara seed.     

The video of the year 

It captivated us all, surprised us all, and put a smile on our faces in a year where we all needed it. And, yes, the impressive videos are also tightly structured demonstrations and orchestrated routines that take a lot of time, trials, and manual input to successfully run. But with 35,460,379 views, it was by far the robotics video of the year. The fact that you can spot Ubuntu on their backstage video is just the cherry on the top of the cake.

Wait, but it was released on December 29th of 2020! Yes, so it was too late to be in the 2020 recap. So recognition where recognition is due. Ladies and gentlemen, Boston Dynamics:

The biggest loss of the year: a humanoid robot

Like many others, Pepper was my first interaction with a humanoid robot. How can someone forget that first interaction? Big black eyes that shine with colourful lights. Fine hands with fingers that move as it talks. Its dance moves… With Pepper, I travelled around the UK showcasing the potential of robotics in healthcare. And despite its technological flaws, its unpredictability, and its lack of a rich set of applications, I fell for the robot.  

So it was with great sadness that I read of its end. According to Reuters, SoftBank stopped manufacturing Pepper robots at some point last year due to low demand. By September this year, it cut about half of the 330 positions at SoftBank Robotics Europe in France. This follows poor long-term sales in the last 3 years, where, according to JDN, SoftBank Robotics Europe lost over 100 million Euros. Now the company is looking for acquisition of the project.

After 7 years of being on the market, Pepper left us with several lessons. The main one is the importance of community and open source contributions. The deployment of closed devices, from in-house voice recognition to troublesome development tools and a poor ecosystem of apps, were not capable of keeping up with customer expectations or technology advancements. In the end, the project was deemed too expensive to keep innovating and addressing customers’ needs. This could have been avoided with community contributions supporting the technology’s advancement.

From Aldebaran to Softbank. It has been a long journey for Pepper. So if you are building the next social robot, take a look at this robot. Learn from its mistakes and its achievements. Learn more about the end of Pepper in our June edition.

The big winner of the year 

It featured in 3 monthly blogs this year, and we simply couldn’t stop talking about it. It not only marked a huge milestone in human history, but it showed us how perseverance and ingenuity can help us reach the stars. NASA was our big winner of 2021.

A masterpiece of engineering: On 18 February 2021, the rover Perseverance landed on Mars. Its companion, Ingenuity, became the first drone to fly on another planet. Perseverance is a science laboratory on wheels with 23 unique cameras. The rover will gather samples from Martian rocks and soil using its drill. The mission aims to search for signs of ancient life and collect samples of rock and sediment in tubes for potential return to Earth by future missions.

Ingenuity is the first robot to demonstrate powered flight on Mars. Known as the mars helicopter, Ingenuity landed attached to the belly of the rover. The robot weighs 1.8 kg, and its blades can reach 2,400 rpm. In April, Ingenuity autonomously rose to a height of 5m before speeding off laterally for 50m – half the length of a football field at over 2,500 revolutions per minute. 

NASA not only surprised us with these two robots, but it also introduced us to Astrobee, NASA’s new free-flying robotic system. The robot will help astronauts reduce the time they spend on routine duties, leaving them to focus more on the things that only humans can do. 

Plus, NASA also announced its support for ROS, and its effort to help this project extend its applications to space. Besides Astrobee, ROS 2 will be reaching the moon in late 2023 on a 100-day mission as part of NASA’s Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER). VIPER is a mobile robot that will land on the lunar south pole to get a closer view of the craters in search of water, ice and other potential resources. Water that could eventually be harvested to sustain human exploration on the Moon, Mars – and beyond! 

NASA is betting on open-source robotics, in its ethos for open development and its potential for mankind. Due to all of this, NASA (and all the organisations involved – thank you all!) is the biggest winner of 2021. Congratulations! 

A year to remember 

We reached the stars and broke some speed records. We delved into the depths of the earth, but also flew to new heights. Robotics showed its best dance moves and also its opportunities for progress. As we start 2022, it is your work that will take us to a new chapter of innovation. And we cannot wait to see what you build next. On behalf of Canonical’s robotics team, thank you for an amazing 2021!

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