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Microsoft Launches Robotics Developer Kit

Microsoft is entering a new market it said has been held back by a lack of standards and uniformity: robotics.

The technology has been widely used for years for such applications as the assembly of automobiles and, more recently, consumer devices like the iRobot Roomba, an automated floor vacuum.

The challenge to achieving even broader use, according to Tandy Trower, general manager of the Microsoft  Robotics Group, is similar to the early days of the PC industry. There's no common platform, no common development environment, nothing that's reusable from one project to the next.

That includes skills. Two similar sensor chips may require a totally different manner of programming, locking developers to specific pieces of hardware.

Trower said that in speaking with Sebastian Thrun, the Stanford professor who led the winning team in last year's DARPA Grand Challenge race, most of the systems used in the Stanford vehicle had to be built from scratch.

So today, Microsoft is introducing the Microsoft Robotics Studio SDK , a development kit that has been in beta testing for several months. It consists of three components: the runtime for controlling different robots, authoring tools for writing code in C#, Visual Basic or Python, and services and sample code.

"This community needs a good software base to smooth out hardware fragmentation, so when people create one project, it's transferable," he told

The toolset in the Robotics Studio is actually based on a visual design tool similar to Unified Modeling Language (UML) tools, where the application's flow and function is laid out on a chart with connections drawn between objects to represent application flow and function.

Once the structure is in place and settings are made, code is generated. Very little code has to be written manually. "If we're going to open [robotics] up to a larger audience, we have to make it usable to a larger audience," said Trower.

Among the development tools is a simulation engine along with a physics engine to simulate the actions of a robot in a real-world environment.

The sample code collection comes with more than 30 tutorials and sample source code to help users get started creating robotics applications.

The Robotics Studio SDK is available now from Microsoft for $399 for commercial developers, or a free download for academics, researchers and students.