Monday, April 6, 2015

ROS and my first pull request

I had been putting it off for a long time, but a couple weeks ago I finally decided to bite the bullet and port my research code to ROS. After a bit of a rough start reinstalling my OS from scratch – I had recently upgraded my notebook to Kubuntu 14.10, but the latest ROS distribution (Indigo) wouldn't install on anything past 14.04 – and coming to terms with the catkin build system, I quickly fell in love with its modular approach to software development.

One of the many little conveniences ROS offers are parameters, which among other things greatly simplify management of program arguments. The ROS C++ client library provides several ways to retrieve parameter values, and optionally provide defaults for when they are not defined. One of those ways is the ros::param::param template function, which can be used to write initialization code like this:
std::string path;
std::string format;
double fps;

param("~path", path, "video.mpg");
param("~format", format, "MPEG");
param("~fps", fps, 30.0);

VideoRecorder recorder(path, format, fps);
However I disliked having to declare variables to get to the parameter values, just to pass them straight to a constructor or function call and then disregard them. So I wrote an alternative version of the template function that retrieved the value as a return instead of an output argument:
template<class T> T param(const std::string& name, const T& fallback)
  T value;
  param(name, value, fallback);
  return value;
So I could rewrite the code above as:
VideoRecorder recorder(param("~path", "video.mpg"),
                       param("~format", "MPEG"),
                       param("~fps", 30.0));
At first I had separate copies of this function on each of my ROS projects, but soon I realized it would be great if I could contribute it to the official roscpp code base. After a bit of stumbling about looking for the right place to propose it, I ended up submitting the change myself as a pull request. Overall the process went very smoothly, though there are some tips I wish I had been given before I started:
  • You'll want to compile and run tests on the code you intend to submit (believe me, even a change as small as the one above was not without a couple coding errors), so remember to create a catkin workspace into which to clone the forked repository;
  • You may think that your change is trivial and will be done in a single commit, but it's likely your submission will go through several revisions before it's accepted. To keep things organized, create a new branch before starting your work;
  • Beware of line-ending whitespace – there are a few lurking around in source files, and if your editor automatically removes them you'll end with an unnecessarily large (and likely unacceptable) diff;
  • That said if you do mess up, don't bother trying to amend the initial commit – simply submit additional commits with the required changes or reversals (this is where having a separate branch may come in handy).
Open communities are not always noted for being welcoming to beginners, even less so in technical circles. But I have nothing but praise for the ros_comm community and the fairly friendly and constructive exchange we had. Keep up the good work people!