We’ve seen our robotics customers do some really amazing things using Unity—from testing and training a robot in simulation to operating a real-life robot. But we love use cases that even we didn’t think of, like: using Unity to train the human operators of the robots.
That’s the approach that READY Robotics, with the goal of making robots more accessible to end users, is taking with their latest Forge/OS robot software. After all, the robot revolution won’t happen if everyone needs PhDs to operate them!
Unity’s core belief is that the world is a better place with more creators in it. Learn how READY Robotics is using Unity with Forge/OS to enable more robotics creators in this guest post by READY’s Co-Founder and Chief Innovation Officer, Kel Guerin, and their VP of Marketing, Erik Bjørnard.
Robots have always captured the imagination. Because they represent a human creation that can interact with the physical world in the same way that people do, it's no wonder that we see them constantly represented in movies and TV. More recently, with devices like the Roomba, robots have entered our daily lives, but we often forget the millions of robots that help to make the things we use every day. Commercially, these industrial robots have been around since the 1960s, sharing that rough birthday with the first mass-produced computers. This is ironic, since computers have become a completely pervasive technology in the world, while there are comparatively few robots.
The relative lack of robots deployed in the world is problematic. As we have seen poignantly in the last year, a manufacturing layer built almost entirely on human labor is very brittle, leading to shortages of critical medical components, microprocessors, and even lumber. Anyone in manufacturing will tell you that they would like to be using more automation, but they can’t.
Why? Because robots are hard. They take a huge amount of knowledge to program and install, requiring advanced degrees or months of training. To compound the problem, every brand of robot is completely different, so those months of training only apply to the robot brand you originally learned, and switching to another brand means doing it all over again. This would be like buying a new laptop and having to learn a new operating system, which is again ironic, because this is exactly the problem that computers faced during the late 70s. Every manufacturer released different computer hardware and software that required specific expertise. They were not accessible and, like robots today, there weren’t that many of them.
What solved this problem for computers is the same thing that can solve it for robots. In the 80s, computers were revolutionized by two things: a focus on usability (Apple, who set the trend, with others following) and common platforms (Microsoft DOS and Windows). When computers were accessible, like those from Apple, people immediately found applications for them. When there was a common platform like Windows, each computer ran the same software, so people could pick the right computer for the job without having to relearn everything. It's this lesson, and these two transformative ideas, that inspired us at READY Robotics to provide a software platform that runs on any robot and actually makes robots easy to use.
Forge/OS was built by READY as the first end-user-focused operating system for robots. Forge does for robots what Windows did for computers (and Android did for phones) by providing a common set of interfaces so the same software “app” can work on any robot. To increase robot accessibility for everyone, we have started by building our own easy-to-use apps on Forge, just like the apps on your phone or computer. One such app is a robot-programming app called Task Canvas, which lets users program robots using simple building blocks in a flow chart. Task Canvas lets anyone easily learn how to program a robot in minutes, and begin working on serious tasks in less than a day. This is a pretty extreme advancement, considering the average industrial robot normally takes 70+ hours to learn. And since Forge runs on any robot, a person only needs to spend that short time to learn Task Canvas once then, just like using Excel on any computer, the user will be able to control any robot running Forge/OS via Task Canvas.
One of the key remaining limitations to learning robots on any level, however, is access to hardware. Even Forge/OS and Task Canvas, which reduce the training time for using a robot from weeks to just a few hours, necessitates that you have a physical robot to work with. This is a huge issue, because while industrial robots are coming down in price, they still cost thousands of dollars, and are thus not accessible to everyone that wants to learn how to use them. Since READY’s core vision is to make robots accessible to anyone, we started looking at widely used simulation software. The idea was that any person with a computer could learn Forge/OS and Task Canvas by programming a simulated robot on their PC, instead of a physical robot in the real world.
Our search led us to Unity and its game engine. Unity is used extensively by video game developers, but is also being adopted by professionals in other industries like manufacturing. This is because Unity has built a premier set of accessible tools for creating hyper-realistic simulated environments, with realistic textures, physics and lighting - a simulation tool that has gotten so good that it is often confused for reality. On top of that, Unity recently released a specific set of tools for simulating robots called Unity Robotics, including a new ArticulationBody GameObject, such that a robot in Unity behaves in a realistic manner when compared with its physical counterpart.
For these reasons it was a natural move to build a robot simulator for Forge/OS in Unity, which we showed off in May at our Forge/OS 5 launch event. The Forge Robot Simulator connects the easy programming of Task Canvas with a simulated robot in Unity, which can be controlled just as you would control a real robot. Moreover, because of the powerful tools built into Unity, we were able to create incredibly realistic environments in which to use those robots.
Everything from simple environments where you can learn the basics of robot motion, all the way to complete industrial workcells. Additionally, because you need to have a complete robot system to work with, we simulated items such as grippers and machine tools with Unity, enabling these devices to be programmed and work alongside robots to complete a task.
The result is a realistic robot experience, where you can create a robot program to grab objects, trigger other devices, and generally perform industrial-like tasks, all on your PC, without physical hardware. And once you have learned Forge in simulation and are ready to take the plunge with a real industrial robot, everything you have learned in the simulator will directly apply to a real-world system, because they run Forge/OS too.
We are so excited for the day when anyone, whether they are a student learning about robots or a professional preparing for a career in robotic automation, can boot up a computer and learn how to program a real robot. We believe Forge/OS has the power to unlock robots for everyone by making them accessible in the same way that Windows and Apple made computers accessible. And we believe the Forge Robot Simulator as the most accessible way for anyone to get started with Forge/OS in a compelling, realistic simulation powered by the Unity engine.
Forge/OS is now available on the READY Robotics website. Look for the Forge Robot Simulator later this summer.