22 March 2002
Robots rampage on Linux
Raleigh, NC - North Carolina State University has robots running about through mazes, trying to alternately recognize each other, avoid each other, and maybe someday to learn from each other.
This sort of behavior would not be possible if they operated on Microsoft Windows brain food. No sirree, for this job, they must have the breakfast of champions! Linux, the open-source computing environment of the people is the food these ‘bots need.
The News and Observer reported on the Linux-based robot project that is underway at NCSU’s Center for Robotics and Intelligent Machines yesterday.
To understand why N.C. State University is a hotbed for open-source computing, watch eight duck-shaped robots learn to recognize one another as they navigate a maze in a campus lab.
Half the robots are green; the rest are red. Each uses a camera eye to avoid the maze's black walls, to find same-color robots and to wheel away from different-color robots.
They report what they see through a wireless network that NCSU students and professors can tap into anywhere. To change the mission -- say, to have the green robots cozy up to the red ones -- a student can type commands into a computer that will transmit them back to the robots.
"Eventually, we want to get to the point where the robots running the maze figure out which one does the best job, and transfer that brain to the rest," said John Galeotti, a computer engineering grad student.
Those robots would not exist today if Galeotti had to use Microsoft Windows, the world's dominant computer operating system. Because Windows is a proprietary system, users cannot get access to or modify its source code.
Galeotti turned to Linux, an open-source operating system that welcomes users to tinker with the source code as a chef might play with a recipe. Galeotti created a stripped-down version of Linux and then added features to make the robots do their tasks.
It's this flexibility for research and user access that has turned NCSU into a leading advocate among universities for open-source computing.
NCSU embraced the philosophy early on. The university played host in the mid-1990s to the first annual Linux Expo. Now a major international event on the tech world's calendar, the Expo initially drew about 150 Linux fans to NCSU.
Since then, the university has formed a strong partnership with one of the leading companies that develop and service open-source products, Red Hat. In February, the company moved its headquarters and 200 employees from Durham to NCSU's Centennial Campus.
Thomas K. Miller, NCSU's vice provost for distance education and learning technology, says the Red Hat move puts NCSU among the leaders in a growing field of computer engineering that could lead to new technologies and new businesses.
"Having Red Hat here will bring a spotlight to some of the open-source projects and initiatives that are going on at N.C. State and will help us get a little bit better known out there," Miller said.
Matthew Szulik, Red Hat chief executive officer, said he looks forward to increased collaboration between Red Hat employees and NCSU researchers and students. He is talking with campus administrators about founding an institute at NCSU to develop less-expensive open-source computing solutions that would address social concerns such as educating students and teachers.
"We would like to create an institute that can stimulate thinking to find a way to really transition the economics," Szulik said. "So that dollars that once flowed into proprietary software, that only impacted a few, could be reallocated to impact many."
NCSU professors and graduate students have developed open-source software to design integrated circuits, built interactive tools for distance education and created a wireless method of polling and surveying students in large classrooms. They've designed open-source software that allows motorists to safely select music from a vast digital library on their car stereos as they drive.
At NCSU's Center for Robotics and Intelligent Machines, the duck-like robots run on chips smaller than a domino and conserve power when idle. Minimum size and maximum efficiency are critical because the goal is creating machines that one day could explore collapsed buildings or distant moons.
"We could not do what we do if we did not have a good open-source operating system like Linux as the underpinning system," said Edward Grant, the center's director. "It allows us to do just so much more."
Though NCSU is a big believer in Linux, most of its faculty, staff and students still use Windows. Three floors down from the robotics center lab in Daniels Hall is a computer lab with Windows NT workstations.
But Carl Howe, an industry analyst for Forrester Research in Boston, said more universities are switching to Linux because its adaptability gives it an advantage in a research environment. He sees interest in Linux eventually filtering down to businesses.
The money won't be made selling the basic software, which is freely available to the public. Howe said that companies can make a profit adapting and servicing what they sell, and they will need people trained in Linux.
"Red Hat's doing the right thing aligning themselves with N.C. State," Howe said. "It's a nice symbiotic relationship."
NCSU became a strong advocate for open-source computing more than a decade ago, when MIT and Carnegie Mellon University made the source code available for their UNIX-based network operating systems. Miller advocated that NCSU take the best of both systems to create its own.
In 1990, NCSU rolled out Project Eos, named for the Greek goddess of the dawn, giving students access to their files and applications from any UNIX workstation on campus. With access to the source code, the university could choose from multiple vendors for UNIX workstations, and it could upgrade the computers without spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on new equipment and software licenses.
A few years later, NCSU textiles professor Warren Jasper and computer science student Matthew Wilson both had the same idea: Why not find a way to bring Eos to any personal computer on campus?
The two spent three years tinkering with Linux and scavenging other freely available computer programs to develop software that could link any personal computer to the campus network. Students and faculty now download their software for free.
Jasper got involved in the project because he needed an easy way to transfer his research data on fabric dyeing from his lab personal computer to a university network that had all kinds of data-analysis tools. Wilson, then a freshman and now a Red Hat employee, had a simpler inspiration.
"It was cold in the wintertime," Wilson said, "and I wanted to stay in my dorm."
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