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How a Visual ROS IDE (MOV.AI Flow™) Was Born

Introducing MOV.AI Flow™, a new visual ROS IDE

About MOV.AI 

MOV.ai disrupts Autonomous Mobile Robot development with a Robotics Engine Platform that contains everything needed to quickly build, deploy and operate intelligent robots.

Robots in different shapes and forms were the stuff of my childhood dreams and filled the Sci-Fi movies and books I consumed. 

When I sold my first software startup in 2004 and wondered what next, I jumped at the opportunity to take a couple of years off and immersed myself in Robotics. Among other things, I went back to university and got involved in humanoid robot research. Academic research in robotics was exploding with innovation. Humanoid robots and mobile manipulators seemed like the next big thing that would soon be commercialized and be used wherever there was physical labor.

The need for a robotics operating system

Autonomous robot software is unique as it requires multidisciplinary expertise covering everything from real-time control loops, to advanced maths and algorithms, to exotic device drivers and networking. With an increasing number of research projects around the world and academic robot competitions, there emerged a need for foundation software that could handle bringing these things together. 

Eventually, one semi-academic organization called Willow Garage created a particularly useful framework generically called Robot Operating Systems (ROS). I remember visiting them in 2011 and seeing their Roomba-based Turtlebot and fridge-size PR2 robots running autonomously, both using the same software stack. 

ROS was not the first open-source framework for configuring robot autonomy, but it was particularly well designed and allowed for quick autonomous robot experiments with a good hardware abstraction and really useful algorithms that exploited complicated signals from LIDARs and depth cameras. ROS took over the academic research world by storm because it also made it very easy to contribute algorithm code. Due to its modular design, new plug-in algorithm code modules were being contributed to the repository fast. ROS accumulated thousands of code contributions and the organization behind it, now named the Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF), continued to maintain and evolve the core system.

Complexity is a barrier to wider adoption 

The one snag was that ROS, which was designed for academic research, has a steep learning curve. It involves the use of command line operations and complex multi-process setup. Without something like a ROS IDE, The coding style and intro demos in C++ and Python are sometimes too big a hurdle for robot enthusiasts outside of academia.

As the owner of a company that was selling robot components and systems to schools and colleges, I could see that a large pool of talent, creativity, and enthusiasm, was barred from using amazing technology. I started imagining what was missing in ROS to make it more approachable to people coming from other domains of coding.

Giving the ROS community more tools

Today, under the auspices of MOV.AI, I am finally realizing that dream. 

The MOV.AI Flow™ beta adds a structural and visual layer to ROS, that will allow thousands of new developers from other domains such as web, app, and AI – and yes, college and high school students – to build intelligent robots using a modern web graphical no-code/low-code framework. The tool – which contains a visual IDE and more – is free forever and the source code is available on GitHub under a source-available license. The license allows developers to use the Flow™ code freely, modify it and distribute it for most commercial purposes.

Some highlights of the MOV.AI Flow beta:

MOV.AI Flow™ beta main capabilities :

    • A visual ROS editor with a visual representation of robot behavior, drag-and-drop editing capabilities, and support for both existing and new ROS projects (Visual ROS IDE)
    • Built-in visual state machine and node orchestration 
    • Callback editor for multi-protocol event-handling
    • Visual debugging both during simulations or in run-time
    • Configuration editor for easy viewing and editing of parameter files
    • Out-of-the-box integration with the ROS ecosystem
    • Dockerized run-time environment for easy installation, deployment, and sharing with others in the ROS community


Final words:

I was involved in designing and deploying different kinds of autonomous robots – logistics, humanoid, photography, and research… I saw firsthand the complexity that emerges from standard ROS deployments. I am a great fan of ROS but not every aspiring robot developer is versed in many of the topics mandated by the standard ROS development framework and this limits the scope of the developer background.

We want to make robotics accessible to the masses. Our Flow project launching today is a tool that will allow many people to interact with robots and simulations. We hope that through using MOV.AI FlowTM we will advance the world of robotics, both commercial and educational. This Visual ROS IDE lets a wider creative audience exploit robotics-related hardware, that is gradually being commoditized, and contribute to the inevitable evolution of helpful autonomous robots.

Limor Schweitzer, 

Founder, MOV.AI

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