The State of Robotics – February 2020

In 2020 we are already seeing the world of robotics hit the ground running. So far this year new and exciting things have been cropping up in every industry. The mainstream media pick up ROS stories and big-name robotics companies are no longer just on the factory floors.  Here we talk about MoveIt for ROS2, ROS best practices, a robotics competition, Boston Dynamics, Otto motors, and more. But there is certainly a lot of we have missed. If you’re working on any robotics projects that you’d like us to talk about, be sure to get in touch. Fire an email to, we’d love to hear about it and share it with our audience. For now, though let’s look at the state of robotics in February.

MoveIt 2 beta released

PickNik Robotics announced a ROS 2 beta version of the popular and widely used MoveIt platform in February.  Development on MoveIt began over 10 years ago and evolved into an easy-to-use robotics manipulation platform.  The package is a key component for picking up, moving and interacting with things using ROS. MoveIt 2 runs on top of ROS 2, enabling faster and more reactive planning for robot arm control.  Over a dozen open-source packages have been ported to ROS 2 for this release, and the mainstream media is noticing.

Boston Dynamics and OTTO Motors announced a collaboration for warehouse automation.

Boston Dynamics, a worldwide famous robotics company for its impressive humanoid robot doing backflips and OTTO Motors (a division of Clearpath Robotics), a leader in industrial autonomous mobile robotics recently announced their collaboration for the future of warehouse automation. And as usual with these players, a (cool) video is worth a 1111101000 words

Introducing university students to ROS 2

Speaking of robotic arms, Canonical engineers continue working with students at Slippery Rock University in Western Pennsylvania to help them start with ROS 2.  Students have been exploring Turtlebots and the OpenManipulator-X.  Sid Faber and Kyle Fazzari hosted a class to guide them in a number of areas:  using ROS 2 services with a robot arm, laser scans, coordinate transforms, and a quick tour through the ROS 2 tools.

In addition to talking about robotics, the class also gave students a feel for working on open source development projects as a career and participating in a global and diverse software development community.

ROS architecture best practices

Researchers from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and Carnegie Mellon University released a study of the current state-of-the-practice for architecting ROS-based systems.  The research is based on analysis of 335 GitHub repositories “containing real open-source ROS-based systems.”  The researchers also surveyed software engineers to identify the most prevalent guidelines and concerns for the systems.  The ranked list of guidelines included which covers a breadth of recommendations including:

  • Use standardised ROS message formats as much as possible, possibly supporting also their legacy versions.
  • Include health information about both nodes and data in messages containing critical data. (e.g., the strength of GPS signal)
  • Group nodes and interfaces into cohesive sets, each with its own responsibilities and well-defined dependencies.
  • The behaviour of each node should follow a well-defined lifecycle, which should be queryable and updatable at run-time.
  • Nodes interacting with simulators and hardware devices should provide identical ROS messaging interfaces to the rest of the system.

The paper was accepted to the 42nd International Conference on Software Engineering (ICSE 2020).

CoSTAR and BARCS earn top places in Urban Circuit of DARPA Subterranean Challenge

The DARPA Subterranean Challenge is a long-running competition for DARPA to find novel approaches to map, navigate, and search a variety of underground environments. The competition is split up into multiple tracks to appeal to the widest audience: the Systems track, i.e. the physical world. And the Virtual track, which is completely simulated. Each track is split into three circuits: tunnel systems, urban underground, and cave networks. The tunnel circuit took place last year, in August 2019, with Explorer coming in 1st, CoSTAR in 2nd, and CTU-CRAS in 3rd, in the Systems track. In the Virtual track, it was Coordinated Robotics in 1st, BARCS in 2nd, and SODIUM-24 in 3rd.

The urban circuit took place just a few days ago, with CoSTAR edging out Explorer for 1st, Explorer in 2nd, and CTU-CRAS in 3rd in the Systems track. In the Virtual track, BARCS slipped in front of Coordinated Robotics for 1st place, Coordinated Robotics came in 2nd, and Robotika was in 3rd. It’s definitely a battle between 1st and 2nd place in both tracks! We can’t wait to see the outcome of the cave circuit in August of this year.

A robot finger with a sense of touch

This one isn’t ROS related but it’s really cool. Researchers at Columbia Engineering announced last month that they have introduced a new type of robotics finger with a sense of touch. It can localise touch with a precision less than 1mm on even multi curved and complex 3D surfaces. Just like you or me. The problems here are, covering multi curved surfaces, high wire counts and difficulty fitting sensors in a fingertip-sized area. The researchers here took a new approach, overlapping signals from emitters and receivers in a transparent waveguide layer which covers the functional areas on the finger. By utilising light in this way they obtain highly discretised data that responds to changes in deformation of the finer. They then use AI/ML models to extract the contact location and applied force from the data without “on-board” analytics.


February sees the roll-out of very impressive work in robotics. The community grows every day and robots are becoming more and more accessible to everyone. The Ubuntu robotics team is proud to present some of the stories we find interesting and the work we’re doing in this post. But we also want to know and talk about what you’re doing as part of that community. It’s great seeing what big organisations are doing, but what we want to see is what individuals or small teams are doing on the ground level. If you have robotics projects you’d like us to highlight, send a summary to and let’s talk. You can also read about January or the holidays too. Otherwise, March on.

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