Opening up the Internet of Things, Robots and Drones

As I've noted before, open source is perfect for the currently-fashionable Internet of Things, where you need an extremely lightweight, low-cost, customisable but secure and rock-solid operating system that can be easily ported to thousands of devices. Only free software fits that bill. I've written a couple of times about AllSeen's bid to become the de facto operating system for the Internet of Things. But of course, it would be too simple - and not necessarily advisable - if there were only one solution, even an open source one. And so it's probably a good sign that other projects are starting to pop up to address this important sector. (See also: What is the Internet of Things?)

Here, for example, is IoTivity, which launched its preview release last week:

IoTivity, an open source software framework providing connectivity for the Internet of Things (IoT), today announced its Preview Release. The IoTivity open source project will be hosted by The Linux Foundation, the nonprofit organization dedicated to accelerating the growth of Linux and collaborative development, as a Collaborative Project.

IoTivity is an open source software framework that enables devices, products and services for the Internet of Things (IoT). The project plans to release a reference implementation of the IoT standards being defined by the Open Interconnect Consortium (OIC), which was founded in July 2014 and now includes more than 50 members. The standard and the open source implementation will help ensure interoperability among products and services regardless of maker and across multiple industries, including smart home, automotive, industrial automation, and healthcare.

There are some interesting points in common between AllSeen and IoTivity. Both are being hosted by the Linux Foundation. IoTivity is adopting standards defined by the Open Interconnect Consortium, many of whose members seem also to be part of the AllSeen Alliance: obviously many are trying to hedge their bets, since it is unclear which standard will win out here. Complicating things further is an even more recent entrant, and a rather high-profile one at that: Ubuntu's creator Canonical.

New Snappy Ubuntu Core on smart devices delivers bullet-proof security, reliable updates and the enormous Ubuntu ecosystem at your fingertips – bringing the developer’s favourite cloud platform to a wide range of internet things, connected devices and autonomous machines.

As that makes clear, at the heart of this Internet of Things offering is a new version of the Ubuntu operating system:

Snappy Ubuntu Core is a new rendition of Ubuntu with transactional updates - a minimal server image with the same libraries as today’s Ubuntu, but applications are provided through a simpler mechanism. The snappy approach is faster, more reliable, and lets us provide stronger security guarantees for apps and users — that’s why we call them “snappy” applications.

Snappy apps and Ubuntu Core itself can be upgraded atomically and rolled back if needed — a bulletproof approach that is perfect for deployments where predictability and reliability are paramount. It’s called “transactional” or “image-based” systems management, and we’re delighted to make it available on every Ubuntu certified cloud.

Alongside all the general Internet of Things devices - hubs, set-top boxes, home appliances - two sectors are mentioned as areas where the Snappy Ubuntu Core can be used. The first is robotics, and here Canonical has been working with the Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF):

Here at OSRF, we’ve been working with Ubuntu to ensure that ROS will be ready to use on Snappy and we’re making plans for a ROS / Snappy store. You’ll be able to write, share, and run ROS-based Snappy apps for your favorite robots.

ROS refers to the open-source Robot Operating System:

The Robot Operating System (ROS) is a flexible framework for writing robot software. It is a collection of tools, libraries, and conventions that aim to simplify the task of creating complex and robust robot behavior across a wide variety of robotic platforms.


As a result, ROS was built from the ground up to encourage collaborative robotics software development. For example, one laboratory might have experts in mapping indoor environments, and could contribute a world-class system for producing maps. Another group might have experts at using maps to navigate, and yet another group might have discovered a computer vision approach that works well for recognizing small objects in clutter. ROS was designed specifically for groups like these to collaborate and build upon each other's work, as is described throughout this site.

The other hot area invoked by Canonical in its announcement of Snappy Ubuntu Core is drones:

Commercial vendors of drones and other smart things can now deliver reliable software updates automatically, and sell software to their customers, on an open platform. “We are delighted to reveal the Erle-Copter as the world’s first Ubuntu Core powered drone that will stay secure automatically and can be upgraded with additional capabilities from the app store,” says Victor Mayoral Vilches, CTO of Erle Robotics. “An open platform attracts innovators and experts to collaborate and compete, we are excited to lead the way with open drones for education, research and invention.”

It's great to see more open source options in key fields like the Internet of Things, robotics and drones, and it's good to see Canonical coming up with interesting new technology. But a fear has to be that the company is spreading itself too thinly, and that projects may not be sustainable. For example, after the initial excitement surrounding the Ubuntu phone, things have gone rather quiet on this front. I hope this isn't the case, and that Canonical can find enough commonality between its many interesting activities to reach commercial viability - indispensable for its long-term survival.

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