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I am looking to buy a cobot for a research project (budget about 20k€). I happened to see some cobots (e.g. Mara) that claim running ROS natively, some others (e.g. Aubo i5) that is compatible with ROS via API.

Since I am not a programmer, could anybody explain me the difference, if any?

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If your top priority is ROS compatibility and not performance, then I would go for the Hardware-ROS "approved" arm.

In my view, running ROS "natively" would mean that the robot has a Linux PC which has a ROS core raised and handles communication with its parts and with the outside world via ROS topics.

On the other hand, having only a ROS API would mean running whatever OS to coordinate sensors, actuators and tasks (or even go completely bare-metal RTOS), but have suitable communication libraries which allow reading and writing onto (specific) ROS topics.

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