You still can't buy many Linux-based robots for under $1,000, except for a handful of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), but we're definitely heading in that direction. Like last year's robot slide show, this year's top 10 list is not a definitive compendium or a shopping guide. However, it may help show how Linux is enabling new capabilities in terrestrial robots, as well UAVs and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs), which are essentially robots that fly or swim. (Click on Gallery to see the robot slide show.)
This year we require that the bots offer some degree of autonomy, even if it's limited to moving around an obstacle for a terrestrial robot or returning to a base station to land by itself in the case of a UAV. This precludes robots that are entirely dependent on manual control via a controller or smartphone app, such as the new under $1,000 low-end Beam+ version of Unbounded Robotics' Beam telepresence bot. We also require the robot to be able to move, even if it's only an arm or two.
Most, but not all, of these robots are currently available for sale, although some cost tens of thousands of dollars. Others are available for pre-order with shipments due in early 2015.
The terrestrial robots listed here range from the emotionally sensitive – Aldeberan's Pepper, sold by Softbank, which is designed for marketing and companionship -- to the vigilant, such as the Scitos A5 surveillance bot. If you worry about the recent warnings from Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk concerning the dangers of artificial intelligence, and prefer your robots to be more servile, you can opt for the SaviOne service robot. The bot not only delivers towels to your hotel room, but promises not to enslave you in a robot work camp.
Linux will likely play its largest role in industrial robots. Here we include the UBR-1, which offers a smart robot arm that can perform dexterous work alongside humans, much like the two-armed Baxter, which appeared on last year's list. Sadly, the Linux-based Butler Gold cattle-feeding robot did not quite make the cut.
The three UAVs listed here can all be had for under $1,000. These include Parrot's $499-and-up BeBop Drone -- a higher-powered and more autonomous big brother to the AR.Drone 2 -- and Pleiades' somewhat similar Spiri which starts at $945. The $491-and-up Erle-Copter is described farther below. Like the other bots listed here, they all run Linux instead of Android, although next year, we may want to include Airmind's Android-based Mind4 follow-me drone, which is available for $899 through Dec. 23 on Indiegogo.
Aside from last year's OpenROV, we have yet to see any Linux-based AUVs that are affordable to consumers. However, we have included two professional, unmanned semi-autonomous submarines that run Linux. The Bluefin-21 made the news earlier this year for its use in the unsuccessful hunt for the wreckage of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, and the SeaBED recently performed Woods Hole-directed research showing that Antarctic sea ice is thicker than expected.
ROS adds ARM Linux support as APM migrates tuxward
This year, several developments established Linux more fully in the robotics scene. In September, the Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF) announced plans to add ARM Linux support to the Robot Operating System (ROS), starting with a Snapdragon 600 optimized version. ROS and Linux have been teamed in a number of robot designs in recent years, including several on our list, but the new port should enable the first truly integrated Linux-based ROS robots.
The Linux port is expected to ship this month, followed by an Android build in 2015. Last week, Qualcomm posted an update on the project's progress, including demos of Linux running ROS on a Snapdragon 600-based Inforce IFC6410 SBC.
In the sky, meanwhile, a Linux version of 3DRobotics' open source, Arduino-focused, APM (ArduPilotMega) operating system for drone autopilots has begun to emerge. The BeaglePilot project behind this effort is a collaboration of 3DRobotics, Erle Robotics, and several academic institutions, which have integrated a BeagleBone Black SBC running Linux with an APM autopilot. The project recently published a paper on the topic, and Erle Robotics has launched a similar Linux-based Erle-Copter, which is included in our top 10 list.
In October, the Linux Foundation and 3DRobotics joined together with the APM-related PX4 autopilot project, as well as companies including Intel and Qualcomm, to announce an open source Dronecode Project based on APM. Although the announcement made no mention of Linux-based Dronecode devices, we are likely to see several arrive in 2015 in addition to the Erle-Copter. 3DRobotics itself is developing an optical companion computer for its new IRIS+ drone that will run Linux on an Intel Edison module.
As we look forward to a new crop of Linux bots in 2015, it should be noted that many of the models on our last two top 10 lists are also still available and viable. Last year's list included the ASV Roboat, Baxter 2.0, Beam, Cheetah-cub Robot, Frindo, Hydraulic Quadruped, Lego Mindstorms EV3, Nao, OpenRov, and SuperDroid 6WD. Meanwhile, there are several open source designs based on the Raspberry Pi, BeagleBone Black, and other Linux SBCs that you can try to build yourself.
On Dec. 10, iRobot, whose Ava 500 telepresence bot made our list, announced a hackable, $200 version of the Roomba for STEM education called the Create 2. The mobile, microcontroller-based device can't vacuum like a Roomba, but it can be fitted with a camera, and can be programmed via a laptop, an Arduino board, or a Raspberry Pi.
Top 10 Linux robots
This year's top 10 Linux robot list, with links to vendor websites, may be found below, and the slideshow is available via the Gallery link. In-depth coverage of all these bots, except the Erle-Copter, may also be found on LinuxGizmos.com, among other resources.
Ava 500-- iRobot
BeBop Drone-- Parrot
Bluefin-21-- Bluefin Robotics
Erle-Copter-- Erle Robotics
Pepper-- SoftBank and Aldeberan
Scitos A5-- MetraLabs/GS4
SeaBED-- Seabed Technologies
UBR-1 -- Unbounded Robotics