ROS Concepts

Summary about some ROS concepts and tools


This page is a summary about the main ROS concepts and some useful command-line tools. It is a summary of what is available here. For a tutorial on how to install ROS kinetic and the Sawyer SDK from sources, please go here.


The ROS Master provides naming and registration services to the rest of the nodes in the ROS system. It tracks publishers and subscribers to topics as well as services. The role of the Master is to enable individual ROS nodes to locate one another. Once these nodes have located each other they communicate with each other peer-to-peer. The Master also provides the Parameter Server.

The Master is most commonly run using the roscore command, which loads the ROS Master along with other essential components.


A node is a process that performs computation. Nodes are combined together into a graph and communicate with one another using streaming topics, RPC services, and the Parameter Server. These nodes are meant to operate at a fine-grained scale; a robot control system will usually be comprised of many nodes.

All running nodes have a graph resource name that uniquely identifies them to the rest of the system - e.g. /hrc_controller. Nodes also have a node type, that simplifies the process of referring to a node executable on the fileystem. These node types are package resource names with the name of the node’s package and the name of the node executable file. In order to resolve a node type, ROS searches for all executables in the package with the specified name and chooses the first that it finds. As such, you need to be careful and not produce different executables with the same name in the same package.

A ROS node is written with the use of a ROS client library, such as roscpp or rospy.


Topics are named buses over which nodes exchange messages. Topics have anonymous publish/subscribe semantics, which decouples the production of information from its consumption. In general, nodes are not aware of who they are communicating with. Instead, nodes that are interested in data subscribe to the relevant topic; nodes that generate data publish to the relevant topic. There can be multiple publishers and subscribers to a topic.

Topics are intended for unidirectional, streaming communication. Nodes that need to perform remote procedure calls, i.e. receive a response to a request, should use services instead. There is also the Parameter Server for maintaining small amounts of state.

Each topic is strongly typed by the ROS message type used to publish to it and nodes can only receive messages with a matching type. The Master does not enforce type consistency among the publishers, but subscribers will not establish message transport unless the types match. Furthermore, all ROS clients check to make sure that an MD5 computed from the msg files match. This check ensures that the ROS Nodes were compiled from consistent code bases.


The publish/subscribe model is a very flexible communication paradigm, but its many-to-many one-way transport is not appropriate for RPC request/reply interactions, which are often required in a distributed system. Request/reply is done via a service, which is defined by a pair of messages: one for the request and one for the reply. A providing ROS node offers a service under a string name, and a client calls the service by sending the request message and awaiting the reply. Client libraries usually present this interaction to the programmer as if it were a remote procedure call.

Services are defined using srv files, which are compiled into source code by a ROS client library.

A client can make a persistent connection to a service, which enables higher performance at the cost of less robustness to service provider changes.


Nodes communicate with each other by publishing messages to topics. A message is a simple data structure, comprising typed fields. Standard primitive types (integer, floating point, boolean, etc.) are supported, as are arrays of primitive types. Messages can include arbitrarily nested structures and arrays (much like C structs). Nodes can also exchange a request and response message as part of a ROS service call. These request and response messages are defined in srv files.

Message types use standard ROS naming conventions: package_name/msg_file_name. For example, std_msgs/msg/String.msg has the message type std_msgs/String.

In addition to the message type, messages are versioned by an MD5 sum of the .msg file. Nodes can only communicate messages for which both the message type and MD5 sum match.

Field types

Built-in types

Primitive Type Serialization C++ Python
bool unsigned 8-bit int uint8_t bool
int8,16,32,64 signed 8,16,32,64-bit int int8,16,32,64_t int
uint8,16,32,64 unsigned 8,16,32,64-bit int uint8,16,32,64_t int
float32 32-bit IEEE float float float
float64 64-bit IEEE float double float
string ascii string std::string string
time secs/nsecs unsigned 32-bit ints ros::Time rospy.Time
duration secs/nsecs signed 32-bit ints ros::Duration rospy.Duration

Array Handling

Array Type Serialization C++ Python
fixed-length no extra serialization 0.11+: boost::array, otherwise: std::vector tuple
variable-length uint32 length prefix std::vector tuple
uint8[] see above std::vector<uint8_t> string
bool[] see above see above list(bool)


A bag is a file format in ROS for storing ROS messages. Bags – so named because of their .bag extension – have an important role in ROS, and a variety of tools have been written to allow you to store, process, analyze, and visualize them. The bag file format is very efficient for both recording and playback, as messages are stored in the same representation used in the network transport layer of ROS. As such, bags are the primary mechanism in ROS for data logging, which means that they have a variety of offline uses.

Bags are typically created by a tool like rosbag, which subscribe to one or more ROS topics, and store the serialized message data in a file as it is received. These bag files can also be played back in ROS to the same topics they were recorded from, or even remapped to new topics.

Using bag files within a ROS Computation Graph is generally no different from having ROS nodes send the same data, though you can run into issues with timestamped data stored inside of message data. For this reason, the rosbag tool includes an option to publish a simulated clock that corresponds to the time the data was recorded in the file.

Parameter server

A parameter server is a shared, multi-variate dictionary that is accessible via network APIs. Nodes use this server to store and retrieve parameters at runtime. It is meant to be globally viewable so that tools can easily inspect the configuration state of the system and modify if necessary.

The Parameter Server is implemented using XMLRPC and runs inside of the ROS Master, which means that its API is accessible via normal XMLRPC libraries.


Parameters are named using the normal ROS naming convention. This means that ROS parameters have a hierarchy that matches the namespaces used for topics and nodes, meant to protect parameter names from colliding. The hierarchical scheme also allows parameters to be accessed individually or as a tree. For example, for the following parameters:

/camera/left/name: leftcamera
/camera/left/exposure: 1
/camera/right/name: rightcamera
/camera/right/exposure: 1.1

The parameter /camera/left/name has the value leftcamera. You can also get the value for /camera/left, which is the dictionary:

name: leftcamera
exposure: 1

And you can also get the value for /camera, which has a dictionary of dictionaries representation of the parameter tree:

left: { name: leftcamera, exposure: 1 }
right: { name: rightcamera, exposure: 1.1 }

The Parameter Server uses XMLRPC data types for parameter values, which include:

  • 32-bit integers
  • booleans
  • strings
  • doubles
  • iso8601 dates
  • lists
  • base64-encoded binary data

You can also store dictionaries (i.e. structs) on the Parameter Server, though they have special meaning. The Parameter Server represents ROS namespaces as dictionaries. For example, imagine you set the following parameters:

/gains/P = 10.0
/gains/I = 1.0

You can either read them back separately, i.e. retrieving /gains/P would return 10.0, or you can retrieving /gains, which would return a dictionary:

{ 'P': 10.0, 'I': 1.0 }

Just like the ROS naming hierarchy, you can nest dictionaries within dictionaries to represent child namespaces.

Private Parameters

The ROS naming convention refers to ~name as a private name. These private names primarily are for parameters specific to a single Node. The ~ prefix prepends the Node’s name to use it as a semi-private namespace – they are still accessible from other parts of the system, but they are generally protected from accidental name collisions.

You can use remapping arguments to specify node parameters on the command line by changing the tilde ~ to an underscore _, e.g.:

rosrun rospy_tutorials talker _param:=1.0

ROS tools and misc things


  • rospack = ros+pack(age) : provides information related to ROS packages
  • roscd = ros+cd : changes directory to a ROS package or stack
  • rosls = ros+ls : lists files in a ROS package
  • roscp = ros+cp : copies files from/to a ROS package
  • msg and srv : message and service files
  • rosmsg = ros+msg : provides information related to ROS message definitions
  • rossrv = ros+srv : provides information related to ROS service definitions
  • catkin_make : makes (compiles) a ROS package

Using rospack

rospack allows you to get information about packages. In this tutorial, we are only going to cover the find option, which returns the path to package.

[alecive@malakim]$ rospack find roscpp

Using roscd

roscd is part of the rosbash suite. It allows you to change directory to a package or a stack. Like other ROS tools, it will only find ROS packages that are within the directories listed in your ROS_PACKAGE_PATH.

(~) ()
[alecive@malakim]$ roscd roscpp

(~/code/ros_catkin_ws/install_isolated/share/roscpp) ()

What to do if your package is not listed in roscd

You need to update the database:

rospack profile

Using rosmsg

Example Usage:

rosmsg show beginner_tutorials/Num

You will see:

int64 num

In the previous example, the message type consists of two parts:

  • beginner_tutorials – the package where the message is defined
  • Num – The name of the msg Num.

If you can’t remember which Package a msg is in, you can leave out the package name. Try:

rosmsg show Num

You will see:

int64 num

Using rossrv

Example Usage:

rossrv show beginner_tutorials/AddTwoInts

You will see:

int64 a
int64 b
int64 sum

Similar to rosmsg, you can find service files like this without specifying package name:

rossrv show AddTwoInts
int64 a
int64 b
int64 sum

int64 a
int64 b
int64 sum

msg and srv

msg files are stored in the msg directory of a package, and srv files are stored in the srv directory.

msgs are just simple text files with a field type and field name per line. The field types you can use are:

  • int8, int16, int32, int64 (plus uint*)
  • float32, float64
  • string
  • time, duration
  • other msg files
  • variable-length array[] and fixed-length array[C]

There is also a special type in ROS: the header, which contains a timestamp and coordinate frame information that are commonly used in ROS. Here is an example of a msg that uses a Header, a string primitive, and two other msgs :

Header header
string child_frame_id
geometry_msgs/PoseWithCovariance pose
geometry_msgs/TwistWithCovariance twist

srv files are just like msg files, except they contain two parts: a request and a response. The two parts are separated by a --- line. Here is an example of a srv file where A and B are the request, and Sum is the response:

int64 A
int64 B
int64 Sum

The full specification for the message format is available at the Message Description Language page. If you are building C++ nodes which use your new messages, you will also need to declare a dependency between your node and your message, as described in the catkin msg/srv build documentation.

Using msg in your package

We need to make sure that the msg files are turned into source code for C++, Python, and other languages. To this end, follow these steps:

  1. Open package.xml, and make sure these two lines are in it and uncommented:

  2. Add the message_generation dependency to the find_package call which already exists in your CMakeLists.txt so that you can generate messages:

    find_package(catkin REQUIRED COMPONENTS
  3. Make sure you export the message runtime dependency:

      CATKIN_DEPENDS message_runtime ...
  4. Uncomment the following block of code in your CMakeLists.txt, and replace the stand in Message*.msg files with your .msg file:

  5. We must ensure the generate_messages() function is called. Uncomment these lines:


Using srv in your package

We need to make sure that the srv files are turned into source code for C++, Python, and other languages. Do step #1, #2, #3, #5 from previous section, and then uncomment the following lines, and replace the placeholder Service*.srv files for your service files:


Now you’re ready to generate source files from your service definition.