Clearpath Announces TurtleBot 4 – IEEE Spectrum
Today, Clearpath Robotics is opening pre-orders for the newest, fanciest TurtleBot: the TurtleBot 4. Built on top of iRobot’s Create 3 in close partnership with Open Robotics, the TurtleBot 4 is “the next-generation of the world’s most popular open-source robotics platform for education and research, offering superior computing power, more payload capacity, improved sensors, and a world class user experience at an affordable price.” Couldn’t have said it better myself, no matter how many times I’ve tried.
TurtleBot 4’s big differentiator is that it’s designed to showcase ROS 2, the powerful open source Robotic Operating System that is working hard to successfully transition from robotics research into an all-purpose framework that can safely and reliably power commercial robots as well. This is the first version of the TurtleBot to run ROS 2 from the ground up (including the Create 3 base), and offers an opportunity for anyone from precious middle schooler on up to learn ROS 2 in a safe and well supported way, on real hardware that is affordable(ish).
There will be two versions of the TurtleBot 4 available for pre-order from Clearpath, starting today. Both versions use the iRobot Create 3 development platform (read more about that here) as a mobility base, with the same power and charging system including a base station. Both also include a 2D RPLIDAR-A1 sensor with a 0.15m to 12m range. Compute comes in the form of a Raspberry Pi 4B running Ubuntu 20.04 with ROS 2 already installed.
From there, the TurtleBot 4 Standard splits off from the TurtleBot 4 Lite. The Lite version misses out on some additional options for user accessible power, as well as useful interfaces including extra LEDs, some physical buttons, and a small OLED display that by default shows the robot’s IP address (or whatever else you want). This is especially neat because it makes it easy to fire the robot up and launch a demo behavior without requiring an external computer. The other big difference is in the sensor: the Lite includes an
OAK-D-Lite camera and stereo depth sensor, while the TurtleBot 4 Standard comes with a more capable OAK-D-Pro.
The cost of the TurtleBot 4 Lite is USD $1,095, while the TurtleBot 4 Standard is USD $1,750. Pre-orders will be available starting today through Clearpath distributors in North America, Europe, and Asia, and shipping will begin in July. This is certainly a premium over what you’d pay for all of the parts individually, and you can certainly build yourself a TurtleBot 4 mostly from scratch if you want to. But unless you have a specific interest in that process, there’s a lot of value in getting a robot that is ready to go right out of the box.
Using the Create 3 as a base gives the TurtleBot 4 both the ruggedness of a Roomba and a bunch of useful integrated sensors—the same ones that Roombas use to reliably navigate your house and not fall down your stairs. The Create 3’s battery gives the TurtleBot 4 an impressive minimum battery life of 2.5 hours, and all of the parts are easy to fix or replace since you’ve got access to iRobot’s supply chain. Top speed is nearly half a meter per second, or slightly slower if you don’t disable the cliff sensors.
If any of this doesn’t satisfy your needs, part of the point of the TurtleBot platform is that it’s super easy to expand, as long as you know what you’re doing (or are willing to learn). Power and communications ports are easy to access, and the TurtleBot 4 has lots of easy ways to mount up to 9 kilograms of hardware.
Historically, TurtleBots have been very popular in educational contexts due to their affordable versatility and (at least in part) to the community support behind them and behind ROS more broadly. They’re great platforms for getting started with ROS (now ROS 2) on your own, or with other students. No matter what problem you run into, odds are someone has already had the same one and solved it and you can find it on the ROS Answers message board. But hopefully you won’t need to do that from the start: TurtleBot 4 will ship fully assembled, with all necessary software pre-installed and configured, and you’ll have detailed user documentation plus demo code and a bunch of tutorials. There’s also a Ignition Gazebo simulation model to play with, which you can access without even buying a TurtleBot 4 at all, as it’s completely free. This should be especially useful for classrooms, where multiple students could work in simulation before trying things out on the real robot.
To get more details on the TurtleBot 4, we talked with:
- Bryan Webb, President of Clearpath Robotics
- Steve Shamlian, Principal Software Engineer at iRobot
- Katherine Scott, Developer Advocate at Open Robotics
- Tully Foote, ROS Platform Manager at Open Robotics
IEEE Spectrum: Why is now the right time for a TurtleBot 4?
Katherine Scott, Open Robotics: I think there was always a rough idea that we wanted to get a new TurtleBot out around Foxy. Foxy is fairly well baked, and we wanted to give people a way to learn ROS 2, and especially for new people coming into the community, they’d have a way to start with ROS 2—that was a big motivator.
Tully Foote, OSRF: It was the beginning of 2021, and basically, we went to Clearpath and started talking about our vision for the TurtleBot 4, and how we wanted to bring it back more along the lines of the TurtleBot 2. We’d found that while the TurtleBot 3 has been awesome as a smaller and cheaper platform, the TurtleBot 2 had hit a sweet spot in size where it could carry things and go over things and be more of a ground robot as opposed to a desk robot. We had some knowledge of what was going on at iRobot with the Create 3, which runs ROS 2, so with that we’re building a ROS 2 robot on top of a ROS 2 base.
“Because it’s got the Raspberry Pi on it, it’s extensible. … Certainly if you’re creative enough, I could picture taking this robot all the way through at least their masters, and then possibly starting a Ph.D with it.”
—Bryan Webb, Clearpath Robotics
Bryan Webb, Clearpath: We thought that the primary ingredients for TurtleBot had really progressed over the last few years, so we could offer a much better development platform than was currently available, and support the community with the latest tools. So we were chatting about it, and it just seemed like there was a lot more that could be done to offer a higher capability robot in that entry level space.
As iRobot was thinking about making a Create 3, at what point did you decide that it could or should be part of the TurtleBot 4?
Steve Shamlian, iRobot: We’re all roboticists here at iRobot. We have a lot of love for the TurtleBot. Especially after seeing how the original Create drove the adoption of ROS—when we saw that ROS 2 was in a place where it needed a TurtleBot, we were really excited to try to help. We really want to help make more makers and more hackers, that’s what this is about.
How customized is the Create 3 for the TurtleBot 4 platform?
Steve Shamlian, iRobot: The Create 3 is an iRobot product that we’re very proud of. We were going to do it whether or not it was going to be a part of the TurtleBot 4. The timing worked out, and I feel very happy that it did. And we definitely talked about things that would be important for TurtleBot, and whether there were design affordances that we could make, but honestly that didn’t change the design very much from what we were going to do versus the things that were requested for the TurtleBot. I think we know the community well enough that we had a good idea of what we thought they would like, so it felt really good to see those things match up so well with what was needed for the TurtleBot 4.
One thing that I always appreciated about the TurtleBot 2 was that it came with a netbook on it that made programming and debugging really easy. That’s something I could see myself missing on the TurtleBot 4.
Bryan Webb, Clearpath: Not bundling the TurtleBot 4 with a netbook is partially reflective of the maturity of ROS, but that may be secondary to the supply chain constraints that we’re living with these days. Netbooks are not really available in the way they once were, and even back when I was intimately involved with the TurtleBot 2, it was always a struggle to find netbooks of the quantity that we needed. That was a big challenge in maintaining the product. So, taking that into consideration, coupled with the amount that ROS has matured, we thought that a good compromise was to make it really easy to hook up to a desktop.
Katherine Scott, Open Robotics: When the TurtleBot 2 was built, most single-board computers were fairly nascent. We put a laptop on there because that’s what was powerful enough to run the robot. One big thing for me was to at least get some minimum viable interface on the TurtleBot 4—a screen and some buttons so that you can at least see the IP right there and SSH into the robot within a minute of turning it on. We’ll be focusing a lot on the user experience here, and making it easy to use.
“We’re really looking to have something that offers a lot to novice, intermediate, and expert users of ROS.”
—Bryan Webb, Clearpath Robotics
How easy will it be to get started with TurtleBot 4, especially for beginners?
Bryan Webb, Clearpath: We’re going to have at least one formal educational course based around the TurtleBot 4. At this point, there’s going to be at least one, and we have eyes towards other opportunities to extend that.
Katherine Scott, Open Robotics: We’ve had a lot of discussions with academics and other people along the way, trying to figure out what’s going to work—you know, do we have to do courseware, or do we just provide the content, and what’s it going to look like?
With TurtleBot 4, we leaned into the simulation side of it a little bit more than we usually would. In a classroom setting, the feedback that we get a lot is that robots are really exciting, but they’re expensive. Classroom robots have always been expensive. So if we can do everything with simulation and then every classroom has two or three robots, I think it’s going to be a better way to do things going forward.
Tully Foote, OSRF: And part of this is also we’re going to be working hard to put together courseware and materials to be able to teach in the classroom, for a fully integrated experience. We’re hoping to have someone from academia writing real content for this, rather than asking a silicon valley engineer to do it. We want to get someone who knows what they’re talking about. The scope will be an introduction to robotics, so it may be starting not far beyond turning your computer on, but the goal will be to get to a college-ish level. And once we get a body of work there, we’d love to push it down to make it more accessible to middle and high school students, and also add more advanced things for graduate level.
How far can TurtleBot 4 take you in robotics?
Bryan Webb, Clearpath: There’s a lot of potential with the TurtleBot 4. Because it’s got the Raspberry Pi on it, it’s extensible. You can put on new sensors for different kinds of research, and build on top of it both physically and through software development. Certainly if you’re creative enough, I could picture taking this robot all the way through at least their masters, and then possibly starting a Ph.D with it.
Tully Foote, OSRF: I’d like to think that the TurtleBot 4, as a platform, is capable enough to take you through grad school if you’re doing straight robotics. If you want to work on multi-robot coordination, it has all the basics. And you should be able to add an arm onto it, and other things like that. But it’s always going to be an entry level robot. If you want to do mobile manipulation, TurtleBot can get you started, but you’re going to want to upgrade to a bigger, stronger platform. It’s really that entry-level robot for before you specialize.
Katherine Scott, Open Robotics: It’s also a good platform for when you’re starting a company. It’s a good platform for getting halfway there, before you can get to where you’re going. As an abstract mobile base, you can build proof of concept ideas, and when you’re ready, move up. The thing I’m excited about, if we do things right, a year from now we’ll see people extending the TurtleBot 4 with new hardware and capabilities.
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