Back in 2014, we struggled to fill out our top 10 roundup of Linux-based robots and padded the list with conceptually similar autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). In addition, many of those robots were proprietary or open source only on the software side. Today, however, it’s easy to fill out a top 10 list of Linux-based terrestrial robots that are open source in both software and hardware. In fact, we were forced to leave a number of worthy projects waiting in the wings.
The latest open source Linux robot to hit the scene — the Turtle Rover — won funding on Indiegogo only last week. This four-wheeled bot, which is larger and more sophisticated than typical wheeled robots like the popular, dual-wheeled GoPiGo, was designed to mimic Martian rovers. Another major player here is the recently rev’d, dual-wheeled TurtleBot 3.
Like most of our entries, these models are wheeled robots built around the Raspberry Pi. With the advent of the quad-core, WiFi-enabled RPi 3 model, we’ve seen far more advanced, and sometimes semi-autonomous Pi-based robots, in addition to the numerous RPi-based toy designs of recent years. Other SBCs have also inspired robot designs, especially the BeagleBone and BeagleBone Blue, which is especially suitable for robotics projects.
While open source hacker boards have expanded Linux robot development in recent years, a larger influence is the optimization of Linux platforms such as Ubuntu for interaction with the open source Robot Operating System (ROS) middleware. A number of our top 10 robots include ROS integration.
Combined with open Linux software, the availability of open source hardware schematics and 3D CAD designs means that users create many of their own parts with 3D printers. More importantly, open hardware also means that the stated specs and capabilities are only a starting point. For example, there’s a fair amount of truth to Switch Science’s claims that its Rapiro robot’s “limitless possibilities all depend on you.” Certainly, there are limitations on all these robots based on the compute board and components, but the potential for creativity is much greater than with proprietary bots with the same base feature set.
Many of these systems, such as the Hicat Livera Robot Kit, combine a Linux computer with an Arduino board for motor control. Others use their own MCU-based chips for motor control.