Base package for ROS Noetic running on a Raspberry Pi 4 for an autonomous 2WD Robot to act in an environment according to sensor information.

DiffBot Base Package

This package contains the so called hardware interface of DiffBot which represents the real hardware in software to work with ROS Control.

ROS Control Overview.

In the simpleste case all that is needed in this package is to write a class that inherits from hardware_interface::RobotHW and provide a launch file. The launch file will

  • Load the robot description from diffbot_description to the paramter server
  • Run the hardware interface of this package diffbot_base
  • Load the controller configuration yaml from the diffbot_control package to the parameter server
  • Load the controllers with the controller manager

diffbot_base Package

The diffbot_base package is created with catkin-tools:

fjp@diffbot:/home/fjp/catkin_ws/src$ catkin create pkg diffbot_base --catkin-deps diff_drive_controller hardware_interface roscpp sensor_msgs rosparam_shortcuts                 
Creating package "diffbot_base" in "/home/fjp/catkin_ws/src"...
Created file diffbot_base/package.xml
Created file diffbot_base/CMakeLists.txt
Created folder diffbot_base/include/diffbot_base
Created folder diffbot_base/src
Successfully created package files in /home/fjp/catkin_ws/src/diffbot_base.

To work with this package the specified dependencies must be installed either using the available Ubuntu/Debian packages for ROS Noetic or they have to be built from source first. The following table lists the dependencies that we have to install because they are not already part of the ROS Noetic desktop full installation. Refer to the section ROS Noetic Setup for how this was done.

Dependency Source Ubuntu/Debian Package
rosparam_shortcuts ros-noetic-rosparam-shortcuts
hardware_interface ros-noetic-ros-control
diff_drive_controller ros-noetic-ros-controllers

To install a package from source clone (using git) or download the source files from where they are located (commonly hosted on GitHub) into the src folder of a ros catkin workspace and execute the catkin build command. Also make sure to source the workspace after building new packages with source devel/setup.bash.

cd /homw/fjp/git/diffbot/ros/  # Navigate to the workspace
catkin build              # Build all the packages in the workspace
ls build                  # Show the resulting build space
ls devel                  # Show the resulting devel space

Make sure to clone/download the source files suitable for the ROS distribtion you are using. If the sources are not available for the distribution you are working with, it is worth to try building anyway. Chances are that the package you want to use is suitable for multiple ROS distros. For example if a package states in its docs, that it is only available for kinetic it is possible that it will work with a ROS noetic install.

Hardware Interface

See the include and src folders of this package and the details on the hardware interface implementation. For more details on the hardware interface also refer to the section ROS Integration: Control, it gives more details and also this overview article about ROS Control.

The hardware interface provides an interface between the real robot hardware and the controllers provided by ROS Control (or even custom controllers). DiffBot works with the diff_drive_controller that is configured in the diffbot_control package, which is also relevant for the simulation in Gazebo. Remember that the simulation uses the gazebo_ros_control package to communicate with the diff_drive_controller. For the real robot hardware, ROS Control uses an instance of type hardware_interface::RobotHW that is passed to the controller_manager to handle the resources, meaning that the actuated robot joints are not in use by multiple controllers that might be loaded.

The skeleton of DiffBot’s hardware interface looks like following, where the constructor is used to read loaded configuration values from the robot’s description from the ROS parameter server:

namespace diffbot_base
    DiffBotHWInterface::DiffBotHWInterface(ros::NodeHandle &nh, urdf::Model *urdf_model)
        : name_("hardware_interface")
        , nh_(nh)
        // Initialization of the robot's resources (joints, sensors, actuators) and
        // interfaces can be done here or inside init().
        // E.g. parse the URDF for joint names & interfaces, then initialize them
        // Check if the URDF model needs to be loaded
        if (urdf_model == NULL)
            loadURDF(nh, "robot_description");
            urdf_model_ = urdf_model;

        // Load rosparams
        ros::NodeHandle rpnh(nh_, name_);
        std::size_t error = 0;
        // Code API of rosparam_shortcuts:
        error += !rosparam_shortcuts::get(name_, rpnh, "joints", joint_names_);
        error += !rosparam_shortcuts::get(name_, nh_, "mobile_base_controller/wheel_radius", wheel_radius_);
        error += !rosparam_shortcuts::get(name_, nh_, "mobile_base_controller/linear/x/max_velocity", max_velocity_);
        rosparam_shortcuts::shutdownIfError(name_, error);

        wheel_diameter_ = 2.0 * wheel_radius_;
        //max_velocity_ = 0.2; // m/s
        // ros_control RobotHW needs velocity in rad/s but in the config its given in m/s
        max_velocity_ = linearToAngular(max_velocity_);

        // Setup publisher for the motor driver 
        pub_left_motor_value_ = nh_.advertise<std_msgs::Int32>("motor_left", 1);
        pub_right_motor_value_ = nh_.advertise<std_msgs::Int32>("motor_right", 1);

        // Setup subscriber for the wheel encoders
        sub_left_encoder_ticks_ = nh_.subscribe("ticks_left", 1, &DiffBotHWInterface::leftEncoderTicksCallback, this);
        sub_right_encoder_ticks_ = nh_.subscribe("ticks_right", 1, &DiffBotHWInterface::rightEncoderTicksCallback, this);

        // Initialize the hardware interface
        init(nh_, nh_);

    bool DiffBotHWInterface::init(ros::NodeHandle &root_nh, ros::NodeHandle &robot_hw_nh)
        ROS_INFO("Initializing DiffBot Hardware Interface ...");
        num_joints_ = joint_names_.size();
        ROS_INFO("Number of joints: %d", (int)num_joints_);
        std::array<std::string, NUM_JOINTS> motor_names = {"left_motor", "right_motor"};
        for (unsigned int i = 0; i < num_joints_; i++)
            // Create a JointStateHandle for each joint and register them with the 
            // JointStateInterface.
            hardware_interface::JointStateHandle joint_state_handle(joint_names_[i],

            // Create a JointHandle (read and write) for each controllable joint
            // using the read-only joint handles within the JointStateInterface and 
            // register them with the JointVelocityInterface.
            hardware_interface::JointHandle joint_handle(joint_state_handle, &joint_velocity_commands_[i]);

            // Initialize joint states with zero values
            joint_positions_[i] = 0.0;
            joint_velocities_[i] = 0.0;
            joint_efforts_[i] = 0.0; // unused with diff_drive_controller

            joint_velocity_commands_[i] = 0.0;

            // Initialize the pid controllers for the motors using the robot namespace
            std::string pid_namespace = "pid/" + motor_names[i];
            ROS_INFO_STREAM("pid namespace: " << pid_namespace);
            ros::NodeHandle nh(root_nh, pid_namespace);
            // TODO implement builder pattern to initialize values otherwise it is hard to see which parameter is what.
            pids_[i].init(nh, 0.0, 10.0, 1.0, 1.0, 0.0, 0.0, false, -max_velocity_, max_velocity_);
            pids_[i].setOutputLimits(-max_velocity_, max_velocity_);

        // Register the JointStateInterface containing the read only joints
        // with this robot's hardware_interface::RobotHW.

        // Register the JointVelocityInterface containing the read/write joints
        // with this robot's hardware_interface::RobotHW.

        ROS_INFO("... Done Initializing DiffBot Hardware Interface");
        return true;

    // The read method is part of the control loop cycle (read, update, write) and is used to 
    // populate the robot state from the robot's hardware resources (joints, sensors, actuators). 
    // This method should be called before controller_manager::ControllerManager::update() and write.
    void DiffBotHWInterface::read(const ros::Time& time, const ros::Duration& period)
        ros::Duration elapsed_time = period;

        // Read from robot hw (motor encoders)
        // Fill joint_state_* members with read values
        double wheel_angles[2];
        double wheel_angle_deltas[2];
        for (std::size_t i = 0; i < num_joints_; ++i)
            wheel_angles[i] = ticksToAngle(encoder_ticks_[i]);
            //double wheel_angle_normalized = normalizeAngle(wheel_angle);
            wheel_angle_deltas[i] = wheel_angles[i] - joint_positions_[i];
            joint_positions_[i] += wheel_angle_deltas[i];
            joint_velocities_[i] = wheel_angle_deltas[i] / period.toSec();
            joint_efforts_[i] = 0.0; // unused with diff_drive_controller

    // The write method is part of the control loop cycle (read, update, write) and is used to 
    // send out commands to the robot's hardware resources (joints, actuators). 
    // This method should be called after read and controller_manager::ControllerManager::update.
    void DiffBotHWInterface::write(const ros::Time& time, const ros::Duration& period)
        ros::Duration elapsed_time = period;
        // Write to robot hw
        // joint velocity commands from ros_control's RobotHW are in rad/s
        // Convert the velocity command to a percentage value for the motor
        // This maps the velocity to a percentage value which is used to apply
        // a percentage of the highest possible battery voltage to each motor.
        std_msgs::Int32 left_motor;
        std_msgs::Int32 right_motor;

        double output_left = pids_[0](joint_velocities_[0], joint_velocity_commands_[0], period);
        double output_right = pids_[1](joint_velocities_[1], joint_velocity_commands_[1], period); = output_left / max_velocity_ * 100.0; = output_right / max_velocity_ * 100.0;
	// Publish the PID computed motor commands to the left and right motors

    // Process updates from encoders using a subscriber
    void DiffBotHWInterface::leftEncoderTicksCallback(const std_msgs::Int32::ConstPtr& msg)
        encoder_ticks_[0] = msg->data;
        ROS_DEBUG_STREAM_THROTTLE(1, "Left encoder ticks: " << msg->data);

    void DiffBotHWInterface::rightEncoderTicksCallback(const std_msgs::Int32::ConstPtr& msg)
        encoder_ticks_[1] = msg->data;
        ROS_DEBUG_STREAM_THROTTLE(1, "Right encoder ticks: " << msg->data);

    double DiffBotHWInterface::ticksToAngle(const int &ticks) const
        // Convert number of encoder ticks to angle in radians
        double angle = (double)ticks * (2.0*M_PI / 542.0);
        ROS_DEBUG_STREAM_THROTTLE(1, ticks << " ticks correspond to an angle of " << angle);
	return angle;


The functions above are designed to give the controller manager (and the controllers inside the controller manager) access to the joint state of custom robot, and to command it. When the controller manager runs, the controllers will read from the pos, vel and eff variables of the custom robot hardware interface, and the controller will write the desired command into the cmd variable. It’s mandatory to make sure the pos, vel and eff variables always have the latest joint state available, and to make sure that whatever is written into the cmd variable gets executed by the robot. This can be done by implementing hardware_interface::RobotHW::read() and a hardware_interface::RobotHW::write() methods.

The main node that will be executed uses the controller_manager to operate the so called control loop. In the case of DiffBot a simple example looks like the following, refer to the diffbot_base.cpp for the complete implementation:

#include <ros/ros.h>
#include <diffbot_base/diffbot_hw_interface.h>
#include <controller_manager/controller_manager.h>
int main(int argc, char **argv)
    // Initialize the ROS node
    ros::init(argc, argv, "diffbot_hw_interface");
    ros::NodeHandle nh;
    // Create an instance of your robot so that this instance knows about all 
    // the resources that are available.
    diffbot_base::DiffBotHWInterface diffBot(nh);
    // Create an instance of the controller manager and pass it the robot, 
    // so that it can handle its resources.
    controller_manager::ControllerManager cm(&diffBot);
    // Setup a separate thread that will be used to service ROS callbacks.
    // NOTE: We run the ROS loop in a separate thread as external calls such
    // as service callbacks to load controllers can block the (main) control loop
    ros::AsyncSpinner spinner(1);
    // Setup for the control loop.
    ros::Time prev_time = ros::Time::now();
    ros::Rate rate(10.0); // 10 Hz rate
    // Blocks until shutdown signal recieved
    while (ros::ok())
        // Basic bookkeeping to get the system time in order to compute the control period.
        const ros::Time     time   = ros::Time::now();
        const ros::Duration period = time - prev_time;
        // Execution of the actual control loop., period);
        // If needed, its possible to define transmissions in software by calling the 
        // transmission_interface::ActuatorToJointPositionInterface::propagate()
        // after reading the joint states.
        cm.update(time, period);
        // In case of software transmissions, use 
        // transmission_interface::JointToActuatorEffortHandle::propagate()
        // to convert from the joint space to the actuator space.
        diffBot.write(time, period);
        // All these steps keep getting repeated with the specified rate.
    return 0;

As we can see, the basic steps are to initialize the node, instantiate the hardware interface, pass it to a new controller manager and run the control loop that does the following:

  • Read joint states from the real robot hardware
  • Update the diff_drive_controller with read values and compute the joint velocities using the target cmd_vel
  • Write the computed values

You may be wondering why the read values aren’t returned from the method and nothing is passed to the diffbot.write(). This is because the RobotHW::init() method, shown in the first code snippet, is used to register the actuated joint names (described in the diffbot_description) to the joint_position, joint_velocity and joint_effort member variables of the custom robot hardware interface. The class that registers the variables of the controller with the hardware interface member variables and thereby gives read access to all joint values without conflicting with other controllers, is the hardware_interface::JointStateInterface. ROS Control uses the hardware_interface::VelocityJointInterface (part of the joint_command_interface.h) that registers the command member variable of the controller with the hardware interface to provide it the command that should be written to the actuators.

When the controller manager runs, the controllers will read from the joint_position, joint_velocity and joint_effort variables of the custom robot hardware interface, and the controller will write the desired command into the joint_velocity_command variable. It’s mandatory to make sure the position, velocity and effort (effort is not needed in the case of the diff_drive_controller) variables always have the latest joint state available, and to make sure that whatever is written into the joint_velocity_command variable gets executed by the robot. As mentioned this can be done by implementing hardware_interface::RobotHW::read() and a hardware_interface::RobotHW::write() methods.

In the control loop the overriden hardware_interface::RobotHW::read() method of DiffBot is used to read the joint states. The diff_drive_controller works with a VelocityInterface which is why the joint_position, defined in rad, and joint_velocity, defined in rad/s, are calculated from the encoder ticks.

PID Controller

Note the two PID controllers inside the hardware interface, where each PID is passed the error between velocity measured by the encoders and the target velocity computed by the diff_drive_controller for a specific wheel joint. The diff_drive_controller doesn’t have a PID controller integrated, and doesn’t take care if the wheels of the robot are actually turning. As mentioned above, ROS Control expects that the commands sent by the controller are actually implemented on the real robot hardware and that the joint states are always up to date. This means that the diff_drive_controller just uses the twist_msg on the cmd_vel topic for example from the rqt_robot_steering and converts it to a velocity command for the motors. It doesn’t take the actual velocity of the motors into account. See the code of diff_drive_controller where the joint_command_velocity is calculated.

This is why a PID controller is needed to avoid situations like the following where the robot moves not straigth although it is commanded to do so:

The PID used here inherits from the ROS Control control_toolbox::Pid that provides Dynamic Reconfigure out of the box to tune the proportional, integral and derivative gains. The behaviour when using only the P, I and D gains is that the output can overshoot and even change between positive and negative motor percent values because of a P gain that is too high. To avoid this, a feed forward gain can help to reach the setpoint faster. To add this feed forward gain to the dynamic reconfigure parameters it is necessary to add a new parameter configuration file in this package inside a cfg folder.

For more details on ROS dynamic reconfigure see the official tutorials.

With the use of the PID controller the robot is able to drive straight:

In case of using inexpensive motors like the DG01D-E of DiffBot, you have to take inaccurate driving behaviour into account. The straight driving behaviour can be improved with motors that start spinning at the same voltage levels. To find suitable motors do a voltage sweep test by slightly increasing the voltage and note the voltage level where each motor starts to rotate. Such a test was done on DiffBot’s motors.

Using six DG01D-E motors the following values were recorded (sorted by increasing voltage):

Motor Voltage (V)
01 2.5
02 2.8 - 3.0
03 3.1
04 3.2
05 3.2
06 3.3

In the videos above, motors numbered 01 and 03 were used coincidencely and I wasn’t aware of the remarkable differences in voltage levels. Using the motors 04 and 05 improved the driving behaviour significantly.

To deal with significant differences in the motors it would also help to tune the two PIDs individually, which is not shown in the video above.

Make also sure that the motor driver outputs the same voltage level on both channels when the robot is commanded to move straight. The used Grove i2c motor driver was tested to do this. Another problem of not driving straight can be weight distribution or the orientation of the caster wheel.

A good test to check the accuracy is to fix two meters of adhesive tape on the floor in a straight line. Then, place the robot on one end oriented in the direction to the other end. Now command it to move straight along the line and stop it when it reaches the end of the tape. Record the lateral displacement from the tape. Measuring a value below 10 cm is considered precise for these motors.

Launch File

To run a single controller_manager, the one from the diffbot_base package defined inside difbot_base.cpp use the launch file from diffbot_base/launch/diffbot.launch:

<!-- -->
    <!-- Load DiffBot model -->
    <param name="robot_description"
	   command="$(find xacro)/xacro '$(find diffbot_description)/urdf/diffbot.xacro'"/>

    <node name="diffbot_base" pkg="diffbot_base" type="diffbot_base"/>

    <!-- Load controller config to the parameter server -->
    <rosparam command="load" 
              file="$(find diffbot_control)/config/diffbot_control.yaml"/>

    <!-- Load the controllers -->
    <node name="controller_spawner" pkg="controller_manager" type="spawner" respawn="false"
        output="screen" ns="diffbot" args="joint_state_controller

This will load the DiffBot robot description onto the parameter server which is required for the hardware interface that gets created inside the next node diffbot_base. It creates the hardware interface and instantiates a new controller manager in the diffbot_base.cpp. Finally the spawner from the controller_manager package is used to initialize and start the controllers defined in the diffbot_control/config/diffbot_control.yaml. The last step in this launch file is required to get the controllers initialized and started. Another way would be to use controller_manager::ControllerManager::loadControllers() inside the diffbot_base.cpp.

After launching this launch file on DiffBot (Raspberry Pi) with

roslaunch diffbot_base diffbot.launch

the following parameters are stored on the parameter server:

$ rosparam list

Additional Requirements

Because the hardware interface subscribes to the encoders, that are connected to the Teensy MCU, and publishes to the motors via the motr driver node, another launch will be required to run these additional nodes. See the diffbot_bringup package for this setup.


To have a simulation showing DiffBot, the second step is to use the diffbot_gazebo/launch/diffbot_base.launch on the work pc:

$ roslaunch diffbot_gazebo diffbot_base.launch

This will launch the gazebo simulation, which can make use of the running controllers inside the controller manager too:

ROS Control with Gazebo Overview.

After launching the Gazebo simulation the controllers got uninitialized. (It is assumed that the gazebo_ros_control plugin that gets launched). Because of this the controllers have to be initialized and started again. For this the diffbot_base/launch/controllers.launch should be used. This launch file is just loading and starting all controllers again. Note that using the spawner from the controller_manager package, like in the diffbot_base/launch/diffbot.launch results in an error. (TODO this needs some more testing).

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