Jun 11 2012
Anne van Rossum

Replicator robot prototypes

In the near future smartphones will become important as the brains for robots. How can we best setup phone-to-phone communication? Or in our case, robot-to- robot communication. We do not only want to have robot-in-the-cloud functionality, but want to be able to stream sensor data from one robot to the other. One of the important criteria for us is the availability on contemporary smartphones. The requirements of the solutions we find should not be judged on the fact that they support a MIPS or ARM computer architecture, but on the fact that it is works fine with Android 2.3. Robot-to-robot communication is especially useful in settings where the robots are physically close. However, for remote presence applications it would be nice to have mobile-to-robot communication which is not limited to one (wireless) network. This opens up possibilities of remote control and remote monitoring. The ability to bridge the firewall that separates a home or company from the internet is called NAT traversal, so it will be really nice if a library or tool makes this easy for us. One of our last requirements is about what we want to communicate. We want to be able to stream data on the level and quality as video chat applications. This means that text-based approaches using JSON or XML per pixel ;-) might not be the best way to go. Tools that try to achieve some quality of service will have a big plus. Especially for communicating accelerometer data between users it is important that this goes very fast. There should be a small delay between a command to a robot and the action by the robot.

Cross-platform tools

There are tools available that makes it possible to program for both Android and iOS at the same time. These tools differ in how much they make use of web functionality. The extreme is an “app” which is only a browser that displays pages from an HTML5 website. Such an app does not look like native applications on your smartphone and has many difficulties in accessing the sensors on board. As Jonas Lind tells us, it might very well be that the final solution for this platform “war” will be more important than the platforms themselves. To us, it seems inevitable to have a solution that can run natively on the smartphone and has access to many of the sensors, attached devices, and as a side-effect has a high performance. Marmalade and Mosync seem to be such cross-platform APIs.

We are not so much interested in these cross-platform capabilities as such: we want to have phone-to-phone streaming of sensor data. Although, it looks like there must be a huge market for multi-user peer-to-peer applications, there does not seem to be many frameworks yet that make it easy for developers to create multi-user games. The streaming capabilities seem not be up to par. The newest Mosync API (3.0.1) might have audio streaming now, but there is nothing in place that really targets peer-to-peer data streaming.

Middleware solutions and standards

In home networking there is UPnP (of which e.g. Cling seems to be big) and DLNA which you will probably recognize from a sticker on your televion set. There do not seem many libraries for Android for UPnP. One of the most professional looking ones is ohNet from OpenHome. The UPnP technology does not use any authorisation schemes and is hence only useful in the house itself. That’s why there is an OpenHome hub to which you can connect to your home and control everything. Besides looking for multimedia streaming solutions, we can also look at the parties that implement phone conversation. So, we have to look at SIP (voice) or XMPP (chat) or extensions on that. There is for example the SOX- XEP extension. It stands for Sensor-Over-XMPP and an ejabberd server will be work fine. Jingle adds peer-to-peer session control to XMPP. Hence, maybe something can be cooked up to combine this and create something that works for robot-to- robot communication, but it will be a lot of effort! There is peerdroid and sip2peer, but both projects do not seem to be backed up by a company or diligent programmers. SIP is a signaling protocol that comes with a real-time transport protocol. The RTCP is a control protocol that is needed besides the data transfer protocol (RTP), which is about quality of service, etc. Audio and video streams have typically separate RTP sessions (and hence different ports). What’s most interesting to us is that there is an experimental Control Data Profile for RTP for machine-to- machine communications. Regretfully, it doesn’t seem anyone picked up on that either. Then, there is DDS, Data Distribution Service middleware, which seems to be promoted by at least one company (Twin Oaks) for use on smartphones and which has a demo. And from a middleware perspective there is zeromq, which also takes messaging between devices more seriously, but which is fairly general (and does not have examples of streaming from Android to iOS for example). To summarize all these solutions seem to have good ingredients for what we want, but to stream for example images and acccelerometer data from phone-to-phone in a nice plug-and-play and reconfigurable manner seems to be not there yet.


For a roboticist or computer scientist it might now be most natural to roll your own solution, but we are convinced something will show up that meets our demands completely in not a very long time. It is most logical to jump the bandwagon with one of the solutions that solves basically everything except for the NAT traversal and only requires an additional hub similar to the OpenHome strategy. Contrary, to the latter though, we would like to pick something that makes development on the smartphone side extremely easy. One choice could have been bump, which has an API that can make a connection on physically bumping devices together. Most promising though seems to be Alljoyn, backed up by Qualcomm and open-source. It works for both Wifi and Bluetooth. You can find the source code here at github. Happy coding!

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