Software variability in service robotics
Journal article, 2023

Robots artificially replicate human capabilities thanks to their software, the main embodiment of intelligence. However, engineering robotics software has become increasingly challenging. Developers need expertise from different disciplines as well as they are faced with heterogeneous hardware and uncertain operating environments. To this end, the software needs to be variable—to customize robots for different customers, hardware, and operating environments. However, variability adds substantial complexity and needs to be managed—yet, ad hoc practices prevail in the robotics domain, challenging effective software reuse, maintenance, and evolution. To improve the situation, we need to enhance our empirical understanding of variability in robotics. We present a multiple-case study on software variability in the vibrant and challenging domain of service robotics. We investigated drivers, practices, methods, and challenges of variability from industrial companies building service robots. We analyzed the state-of-the-practice and the state-of-the-art—the former via an experience report and eleven interviews with two service robotics companies; the latter via a systematic literature review. We triangulated from these sources, reporting observations with actionable recommendations for researchers, tool providers, and practitioners. We formulated hypotheses trying to explain our observations, and also compared the state-of-the-art from the literature with the-state-of-the-practice we observed in our cases. We learned that the level of abstraction in robotics software needs to be raised for simplifying variability management and software integration, while keeping a sufficient level of customization to boost efficiency and effectiveness in their robots’ operation. Planning and realizing variability for specific requirements and implementing robust abstractions permit robotic applications to operate robustly in dynamic environments, which are often only partially known and controllable. With this aim, our companies use a number of mechanisms, some of them based on formalisms used to specify robotic behavior, such as finite-state machines and behavior trees. To foster software reuse, the service robotics domain will greatly benefit from having software components—completely decoupled from hardware—with harmonized and standardized interfaces, and organized in an ecosystem shared among various companies.


Service robots

Robotics software engineering

Autonomous and (self-)adaptive systems


Sergio García Gonzalo

University of Gothenburg

Daniel Strüber

Radboud University

Davide Brugali

University of Bergamo

Alessandro Di Fava

PAL Robotics

Patrizio Pelliccione

Gran Sasso Science Institute (GSSI)

Thorsten Berger

University of Gothenburg

Ruhr-Universität Bochum

Empirical Software Engineering

1382-3256 (ISSN) 1573-7616 (eISSN)

Vol. 28 2 24

Subject Categories

Software Engineering


Computer Science





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