Microsoft Corp. has released its Window-based robotics software development kit. Called Microsoft Robotics Studio (MSRS), it consists of a visual robot programming language, 3D physics-based simulation tools and a services-oriented runtime architecture.
Together, these components offer a common software development platform for many kinds of robots — from simple hobby models up to complex industrial robots. “The development kit scales across the whole industry,” says Tandy Trower, general manager of Microsoft's Robotics Group. “Regardless of where you are on the learning curve or what kind of hardware you have, you work with the same programming model.”
And that's a big step in the world of robotics, which has traditionally been fragmented in terms of hardware, operating system and programming environments. “Until now, every developer had to come up with their own development environment,” says Lloyd Spencer, president of CoroWare, a robotics' systems integrator and one of Microsoft's industry partners for MSRS. He argues MSRS will allow both large and small developers to stop reinventing the wheel every time they come up with a new robot application. Owen Jones, CEO of Braintech Inc., a supplier of vision guided robotics' software, agrees. “Right now, developers have to start from scratch with nearly every application. With robotics studio, they don't have to start from scratch,” he says.
Much of the attention surrounding MSRS has so far involved its potential to help speed the development of consumer or service robots. Jones predicts MSRS will do for robots what Microsoft's operating systems have done for the personal computer. “I believe the software will help usher in a revolution in consumer robotics,” Jones says. “Anyone from the hobbyist to the small entrepreneur to R&D staffers at a large company will be able to develop robotics' applications in using a common language.”
But MSRS has implications for industrial users, too. For one thing, it's built around a service-oriented architecture that inherently supports the kind of distributed processing power found in more and more industrial applications. George Chrysanthakopoulos, one of the Microsoft software architects who created MSRS, says he doesn't believe MSRS will necessarily replace proprietary industrial robot controllers when it comes to running crucial position control loops, but he says “lower-frequency logic” could easily be distributed to PCs using MSRS. He notes that the service-based system can handle as many as 100,000 messages/second while a typical robotic application requires about 60 messages/sec/axis.
MSRS also promises to make training and simulation easier. It contains Ageia Technologies' physics engine, so the 3D simulations consider not only motions but also the related loads, forces and accelerations.
Of the 30 robotics' suppliers that have so far partnered with Microsoft on this robotics effort, several supply industrial robots or related systems. Braintech, for example, sells vision guidance technology used in industrial robots. The company released a suite of MSRS software services under the brand name, VOLTS-IQ. The suite will offer feature recognition, object localization and robot guidance. And Kuka Robotics, to take another key example, is working with MSRS as an education and training tool, says Kevin Kozuszek, the company's director of marketing. The longer term potential is to transfer finished robotics software from MSRS to Kuka's PC-based controllers.
Microsoft Robotics Studio is available to license free of charge now for hobbyists, students and academics. Commercial robot developers can license the development platform for prices starting at $399.