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Several segments of the automotive industry have embraced open source software, especially Linux-based code over the past decade.
Here we focus on an open framework called a robotic operating system (ROS). Apex.AI takes advantage of ROS, adding new automotive features described below.
ROS has been around for over a decade and is increasingly being used by autonomous vehicle (AV) developers. Apex.AI has significantly improved ROS for automotive applications.
I summarize the importance of ROS, then profile Apex.AI. By focusing on the automotive industry and software-defined vehicles, the company is gaining popularity, making it a future player in AV development and a likely acquisition target.
ROS is a software framework focused on the development of systems and applications for robotic products. Robotics includes most types of autonomous systems – land, air and sea. The table below gives an overview of the ROS. Sources include the Open Robotics website.
ROS is not an operating system because it does not control or manage hardware resources, the key function of an operating system. Instead, ROS works with an operating system, preferably a real-time operating system.
ROS encompasses many functions that are included in the middleware. ROS middleware focuses on building a software ecosystem for autonomous and robotic devices. This development-centric approach leverages the traditional strengths of open source development.
Software in the ROS ecosystem falls into three categories:
- Language- and platform-independent tools for developing and distributing ROS-based software.
- ROS client library implementations for key languages such as Python, C++ and Lisp.
- Packages with application-related code that uses one or more ROS client libraries.
Language independent tools and core client libraries (C++, Python, Lisp) are released under license and are free for both commercial use and research.
The final version of ROS 1 was released in May 2020. ROS 2 is greatly enhanced, taking advantage of a large ecosystem of software libraries and development tools to create robotic applications.
The second generation version incorporates a new API that supports real-time programming and a wider variety of computing environments.
ROS Ignition includes robotic tools such as simulation libraries and cloud services. Five ignition versions were released. Another simulation development tool, Gazebo, focuses on 3D simulations with robotic devices, obstacles, and other scenarios. Gazebo is in its eleventh version.
ROS also provides services such as low-level device control, hardware abstraction, passing messages between processes, package management, and others. Software development processes can also be represented as a graphical architecture.
The Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF) was established in 2012 as a California company. The OSRF is a public benefit non-profit entity and charitable organization exempt from tax under Section 501c of the IRS. A subsidiary in Singapore focuses on the regional development community. In 2017, the foundation changed its name to Open Robotics. Since then, it has more than 50 employees.
Open Robotics is guided by a 19-member Steering Committee that includes representatives from Amazon, Bosch, Intel, LG Electronics, Microsoft, Samsung, Sony, Toyota Research Institute, Ubuntu, and Wind River. Apex.AI is also a member of the steering committee.
An early version of ROS was developed by students at Stanford University, some of whom later started Willow Garage to continue ROS development.
Willow Garage released its first ROS version in March 2010, attracting a large following of academic developers in the United States and elsewhere.
In February 2013, OSRF took over the development of ROS. Since then, Open Robotics has expanded the ROS ecosystem and updated the software technology.
Open Robotics currently focuses on five industry sectors: aerospace, automotive, healthcare, logistics and maritime.
Apex.AI was founded in 2017 in Palo Alto, with offices in Berlin, Munich and Stuttgart, Germany. It has received more than $70 million in funding, including investments from Airbus, Continental, Hella, Jaguar Land Rover, Toyota, Volvo Group and ZF, according to the company’s website.
CEO Jan Becker has over 20 years of audiovisual experience. Becker was a member of the Stanford team participating in the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge. Later, he led the development of autonomous driving at Bosch North America. He was also a co-author of the SAE Level of Autonomy definitions.
Becker taught at Stanford University for over 15 years, focusing on AV and ADAS technologies.
CTO Dejan Pangercic, who coordinates development activities at Apex.AI, has over a decade of experience in robotics and software frameworks, including ROS-based software development.
The company’s strategy focuses on advancing the ROS 2 framework to the next level by rewriting the ROS 2 code with an emphasis on automotive functionality. The upgraded version called Apex.OS is a real-time car development kit and platform. Apex.AI added hardware abstraction, which means Apex.OS code can run on multiple microprocessor architectures. The strategy also focuses on software-defined vehicles and in particular on safety-critical systems.
Apex.AI has received ISO 26262 ASIL D certification from Germany’s leading testing company TÜV Nord. The product, Apex.OS Cert., positions itself as an operating system framework and development kit for software-defined AVs and vehicles.
Apex.AI uses C++ to develop its software, offering middleware libraries in C, C++, Python and Rust. This strategy allows Apex.AI to prepare its technology for ADAS and AV production.
Apex.OS was introduced as a software platform that could be integrated into all in-vehicle areas while extending cloud functionality. As a fork of ROS 2, Apex.OS is touted as real-time, reliable, and deterministic for use in security applications.
The robotic operating system targets two main customers: OEM developers implementing complex AI software embedded in multiple ECUs; and AV developers implementing safety-critical applications. Apex.OS can also be used with other development frameworks, including AUTOSAR Adaptive.
Apex.OS 1.3 and Apex middleware can be used together. The latter is designed as an integration of Eclipse Cyclone DDS and Eclipse iceoryx, enabling real-time data transfer and so-called copyless communication. Zero copy is a crucial feature for software development with stringent real-time requirements.
The figure below shows how Apex.OS integrates with Apex.Middleware and other products. Note that a real-time operating system is needed on top of the ECU hardware.
Meanwhile, Apex.Autonomy serves as a set of certified building blocks for developing autonomy functions. It includes a lidar-based L4 autonomous driving stack for building safety-critical applications.
Apex.AI has disclosed some information about its partners and customers, with other relationships likely formed but not announced.
Continental and Apex.AI have been collaborating since 2020, using Apex.OS in vehicle electronic systems. As a Tier 1 vendor, Continental needs better software capabilities, and Apex.AI provides security-critical software tools.
Green Hills Integrity RTOS core has achieved ISO 26262 ASIL D certification and passed ISO 21434 automotive cybersecurity standard. Integrity is a good companion for many Apex.AI customers.
Apex.AI has also partnered with Tier IV, a Japanese AV software startup. Tier IV has developed an open-source standalone software platform called Autoware. The partners will bundle their software and offer it to their customers.
Toyota’s Woven Planet also uses Apex.OS for security applications such as AV software. Woven Planet implements Apex.OS in its Arena platform. Toyota’s software development platform includes advanced tools, APIs and security building blocks to shorten software development cycles for new mobility and automation applications.
Another customer, Voyage, uses Apex.OS to develop its fixed-route vans. Voyage was recently acquired by Cruise.
ZF is both an investor, with a 5% stake, and a client of Apex.AI. It develops critical software based on Apex.OS.
At the end of the line
ROS is a well-established and popular open-source software development framework and platform for building robotic systems and applications. It has attracted strong participation from the tech industry under the leadership of Open Robotics.
Apex.AI has leveraged the ROS ecosystem to develop products that meet the needs of the automotive industry. Apex.OS has received the highest rating for security-critical software: ISO 26262 ASIL D certification. Its companion products, Apex.Middleware and Apex.Autonomy are likely to achieve similar security ratings.
It’s a great strategy. Apex.AI’s technology should prove useful for automotive OEMs, Tier 1 suppliers, AV software developers, and those designing safety-critical systems.
It is also likely that Apex.AI will become an acquisition candidate.