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Software Architectures for Robotic Systems

Autonomous robotics is a nascent field of study compared to mathematics, electrical and mechanical engineering or any of the many other disciplines which influence the development of robotics. So many fields of study are transforming robotics today it is nearly impossible to list them all.

Software architectures for robotic systems have been split for for over three decades. Two primary approaches have been researched, implemented, and demonstrated — reactive systems and planning systems.

Reactive systems are also know as behavior based architectures. The reactive approach in a nut shell is awake, sense, process and execute a motion or action but not store any significant knowledge. One of the key researchers in behavoir based robotics is Rodney Brooks who developed the Subsumption Architecture.

The opposing field of study is based on a hierarchy of control decisions that retain knowledge of the world between each update cycle. Essentially, each tier of the software passes a decision to a lower layer. Each of those layers manages a model of the world at the fidelity required to make a decision for execution. James Albus is one among many who have contributed to the hierarchical architecture literature with his development and contributions to the 4D/RCS architecture.

Most architectures are leaning toward the planning model today. Not all. Lightweight, behavior based approaches can be used if the environment is constrained along with the problem. I Robot has sold many (not so functional) Roomba vacuum cleaners based on a purely reactive model.

For heavier problems, the DARPA Grand Challenge I & II and Urban Challenge provide a wealth of information on how teams approached the problems. Most teams in the competitions had and have a good web presence. A little searching will demonstrate most of the successful teams utilized plan based approaches.

Recently, probability has taken a large role in many robotic systems. One of the leaders in the field is Sebastian Thrun who published a text Probabilistic Robotics covering the field.

Which one is right for the 2010 SF competition? Time will tell.

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