Making robots with open source: An interview with Steve Cousins, CEO Willow Garage

This week’s FLOSS4Science interview is with Steve Cousins, President and CEO of Willow Garage, creators of the PR2 robot and the TurtleBot, both based on the open source ROS (Robot Operating System) platform and powered by this hosting company‘s cloud computing platform. Roboticists, enjoy the interview!

F4S: Please, give us a brief introduction about your company Willow Garage.

Steve: The goal at Willow Garage is to help the personal robotics revolution arrive as soon as possible. To that end, we have three distinct areas of focus: hardware, software and research.

On the hardware front, we are most widely known as the creator of the PR2 robot, arguably the most advanced mobile manipulation robot in the world today. It’s sold (and has been given away) as a platform for development to robot researchers worldwide. In having a common hardware platform, and by providing robot researchers with a robot (instead of them having to build their own), Willow Garage is accelerating personal robot development and also providing a framework for researchers to share information with each other. We also recently introduced a one-armed version of the PR2, called PR2 SE, which is meant to lower cost. We also sell the TurtleBot, a smaller and cheaper robot developed more for the hobbyist and education markets.

All three robots run on ROS, which is the open source robot operating system created and nurtured at Willow Garage. ROS has been growing like crazy, particularly as it expands outside of Willow Garage, and is the most mature robot open source OS in the world. In keeping with the same philosophy as the PR2, we want to create a common platform for development; in this case an OS that robotic researchers worldwide can collaborate upon.

The research group at Willow Garage attacks the fundamental unsolved problems in robotics today: perception, manipulation, and human-robot interaction.


F4S: When and why was Willow Garage founded? Where is it located?

Steve: Willow Garage was founded in 2006 to accelerate the development of personal robotics and advance open source robotics software and to push the frontiers of robotics, both scientifically and commercially. We are located in Menlo Park, CA.

F4S: What is your business model?

Steve: The business model is built on achieving a long-term vision of a personal robotics industry. Our business goals are impact first, return on capital second, with the strong belief that success in the first goal (impact) would provide plenty of opportunities to excel at the second (return on capital).

Short term impact is based on metrics which are not necessarily financial goals. The number of PR2 units deployed, for example, or the number of ROS libraries, robots (outside of Willow Garage) using ROS.
F4S: How many clients do you have? Can you mention some of them?

Steve: The simplest way to categorize Willow Garage ‘clients’ are those institutions currently using the PR2 robot as a platform for personal robotics R&D. There are approximately 25 organizations now developing robot applications on the PR2, including University of California, at Berkeley; Stanford University, MIT, USC, University of Pennsylvania, Bosch, Samsung, the University of Ulster, and more.

F4S: Are you self-funded or did Willow Garage got started with venture capital?

Steve: Self-funded.

F4S: How many employees does Willow Garage have?

Steve: Approximately 60, but with a heavy emphasis on bringing in additional individuals as interns. The company leadership team is listed at:

F4S: What career opportunities are there in Willow Garage?

Steve: Practically anything to do with personal robotics, including hardware, software and research.

F4S: How will you describe Willow Garage’s working environment?

Steve: Very enthusiastic, very collegial. The individuals who work here are passionate both about robotics, but also about the larger vision for personal robotics. They see the work they are doing now as influencing generations to come.

F4S: What challenges have you confronted been a business based on open source software?

Steve: The most difficult thing about open source software is that people aren’t used to it. We believe that by sharing results the community (all of us) benefit a great deal, but there are some who believe that they need to protect their results in order to have an advantage. If everyone thinks that way, we all suffer and the industry takes much longer to grow. So our challenge is to help people understand the tremendous advantages of sharing.

F4S: What advice could you give to someone who is thinking about starting a business using scientific open source software?

Steve: Think carefully about what your expertise is, and focus on that. Sharing software makes you a first-class member of the community – leverage it. Identify what your competitive advantage will be, and protect that, but share everything else.

F4S: Which projects, blogs or sites related to open source software for science can you recommend?

Steve: is a tremendous resource for robotics algorithms. It has pointers to free software as well as an extensive blog. also has a rich blog with lots of videos of results and pointers to other sites.