Component-based software architectures in robotics

Robots are highly complex systems that embed numerous sensors and actuators, in the service of a variety of algorithms performing heterogeneous tasks. They often have to deal with severe requirements (timing constraints, limited energy, memory and processing resources, etc.) and must show a robust conception as uncertainty about their environment is high, and unexpected events can have critical consequences.

To facilitate the development of robotic software, component-based architectures, where components are independent processes, have become the de facto standard in robotics. Each software component is dedicated to a given task, from low-level control to high-level processing. Components communicate with each other with the help of a software piece called the middleware.

For instance, consider a robot embedding a camera and performing object detection in the images. One component could be in charge of acquiring the images using the camera’s driver, and would output them. Another component could input the images and run an algorithm on them to detect objects, producing the detection result as output for any other component in need of this information. Routing data from the output of the first component to the input of the second one is ensured by the middleware, this is called data flow.

Components offer services to the user to modify their behaviour and adapt to different situations. To follow with the example above, the component acquiring images could provide a service to select which camera to use, another one to configure parameters such as the image size and the number of frames per second, a third one to explicitly request the start of the acquisition, etc. The component detecting objects could have a service to change some parameters in the detection algorithm, another one to choose which image stream to take as input (because there could be several components streaming images from different cameras), etc. Making services available to the user is again handled by the middleware, this is called control flow.


The user mentioned here is not necessarily a physical person. For autonomous robots, it will probably be a detached software piece, supervising the state of the robot and choosing to start a given service to accomplish a new goal. This software piece belongs to the decisional level, while other components make up the functional level.

Component-based software architectures offer great benefits in robotics, in particular [Brooks2005]:

  • Modularity
    • As many operations handled by a robot require to have their own thread of execution (e.g. data acquisition for sensors, motion control for actuators), having them in separate programs eases their concurrent execution.
    • The architecture can be adapted to the needs of the robot: adding a new hardware piece such as a sensor will result in running a new software component to drive it.
    • The system can be distributed over a network, as the middleware seamlessly ensures communication between components running on different host machines.
  • Re-usability
    • Common components can be used across robots without having to recode them from scratch.
    • Components can be packaged and easily shared in the robotics community, where open source software prevails.
    • Re-usable components reduce development cost and time, while improving software quality and sustainability.
[Brooks2005]A. Brooks, T. Kaupp, A. Makarenko, S. Williams, and A. Ore- back. Towards component-based robotics. In IEEE International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems, pages 163–168, Tsukuba (Japan), 2005.