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Now that Rockwell Automation’s acquisition of Clearpath Robotics and OTTO Motors is complete (at something like US $600 million, according to one source), it’s more important than ever to get at least some understanding of what the future holds for those iconic yellow-and-black research robots. And it’s not just about their robots, either: Clearpath Robotics was one of the original champions of the Robot Operating System (ROS), and the company has provided a massive amount of support to the ROS community over the past decade.

At the IEEE/RSJ International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems (IROS 2023) in Detroit earlier this month, we spoke with Clearpath Robotics cofounder Ryan Gariepy to get a better sense of where things are headed for Clearpath Robotics.

Now that you are part of Rockwell, what’s staying the same?

Ryan Gariepy: Both Clearpath Robotics and OTTO Motors are still very much in existence. We’re still operating with our own road maps, and Rockwell Automation has a desire to keep these brands around. We plan to keep the iconic Clearpath colors. Basically, we’re going to continue business as usual. As much as I appreciate people’s concern, we do intend to continue building this for the long-term.

“We’re now in a world where one of the largest industrial automation companies has decided that robotics is a strategic interest. We think there will be a lot of things that the robotics research community will be excited about.”

—Ryan Gariepy, Clearpath Robotics

What’s going to be different?

Gariepy: We anticipate being able to take larger risks, with more of a long-term view on some of our products and services. Rockwell also has established global scale in sales, deployment, support, supply chain, everything. It’ll really allow us to focus much more on what we’re good at, rather than having to choose between product development and operations.

Rockwell currently does a lot of stuff which is peripheral to the robotics community. They’re a global leader in motion control, in sensing, in safety—these are things that could be of great interest. I think any long-time researcher will remember the days when sensor manufacturers didn’t even support using their sensors on robots, and you had to reverse-engineer those protocols yourself. But we’re now in a world where one of the largest industrial automation companies has decided that robotics is a strategic interest. We think there will be a lot of things that the robotics research community will be excited about.

What about long-term support for existing Clearpath research robots?

Gariepy: If anything, a company like Rockwell gives us more stability rather than less stability. They’re used to supporting their products for far longer than us—the oldest Huskies are coming up on 12 or 13 years old. Rockwell has products that have been on the market for 20 years that they’re still supporting, so they very much respect that. I know that for a lot of researchers, it seems like Clearpath Robotics has been around forever, but we’ve only been around for 14 years. Rockwell has been around for 120 years.

What about TurtleBot?

Gariepy: TurtleBot 5 would be a future road map discussion, and that’s more in the hands of Open Robotics than Clearpath Robotics. We do love the TurtleBot, we’re building as many TurtleBots as we possibly can, and we have a long-term agreement with Open Robotics to continue the TurtleBot partnership. That agreement continues.

How does Rockwell feel about ROS?

Gariepy: Rockwell wants to work more with ROS, and has definitely been excited by the leadership that we have with the ROS community. There are a lot of things that we’ve been talking about on how to build on this, but I can’t really get into any details. Honestly, this is because there are so many good ideas we have, that even with this larger company, I don’t have the people to pull everything off right now.

Again, it wasn’t that many years ago when you couldn’t get an API for a manipulator arm so that you could even use it, much less have the manufacturer of that arm support ROS themselves. Things have changed substantially, and now you have a company like Rockwell becoming very excited about the potential in the ROS community.

Clearpath Robotics has of course only ever been one part of the ROS community—an important part, certainly, but the continued success of ROS has (we hope) grown beyond what might be going on at any one company. It’s a little worrisome that several other important parts of the ROS community, including Fetch Robotics and Open Robotics, have also been acquired relatively recently. So with all this in mind, we’ll be at ROSCon in New Orleans later this week to try to get a better sense of how the community feels about the future of ROS.

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