Introduction to URDF

In this exercise, we will explore how to describe a robot in the URDF format.


Many of the coolest and most useful capabilities of ROS and its community involve things like collision checking and dynamic path planning. It’s frequently useful to have a code-independent, human-readable way to describe the geometry of robots and their cells. Think of it like a textual CAD description: “part-one is 1 meter left of part-two and has the following triangle-mesh for display purposes.” The Unified Robot Description Format (URDF) is the most popular of these formats today. This module will walk you through creating a simple robot cell that we’ll expand upon and use for practical purposes later.

Scan-N-Plan Application: Problem Statement

We have the software skeleton of our Scan-N-Plan application, so let’s take the next step and add some physical context. The geometry we describe in this exercise will be used to:

  1. Perform collision checking
  2. Understand robot kinematics
  3. Perform transformation math Your goal is to describe a workcell that features:
  4. An origin frame called world
  5. A separate frame with “table” geometry (a flat rectangular prism)
  6. A frame (geometry optional) called camera_frame that is oriented such that its Z axis is flipped relative to the Z axis of world

Scan-N-Plan Application: Guidance

Note: If you have not completed the previous tutorials, copy myworkcell_core and myworkcell_support packages from ~/industrial-training/exercises/2.3/src and git clone into your current workspace src folder.
  1. It’s customary to put describing files that aren’t code into their own “support” package. URDFs typically go into their own subfolder ‘’urdf/’’. See the abb_irb2400_support package. Add a urdf sub-folder to your application support package.

  2. Create a new workcell.urdf file inside the myworkcell_support/urdf/ folder and insert the following XML skeleton:

    <?xml version="1.0" ?>
    <robot name="myworkcell" xmlns:xacro="">
  3. Add the required links. See the irb2400_macro.xacro example from an ABB2400. Remember that all URDF tags must be placed between the <robot> ... </robot> tags.

    1. Add the world frame as a “virtual link” (no geometry).

      <link name="world"/>
    2. Add the table frame, and be sure to specify both collision & visual geometry tags. See the box type in the XML specification.

      <link name="table">
            <box size="1.0 1.0 0.05"/>
            <box size="1.0 1.0 0.05"/>
    3. Add the camera_frame frame as another virtual link (no geometry).

      <link name="camera_frame"/>
    4. Connect your links with a pair of fixed joints Use an rpy tag in the world_to_camera joint to set its orientation as described in the introduction.

      <joint name="world_to_table" type="fixed">
        <parent link="world"/>
        <child link="table"/>
        <origin xyz="0 0 0.5" rpy="0 0 0"/>
      <joint name="world_to_camera" type="fixed">
        <parent link="world"/>
        <child link="camera_frame"/>
        <origin xyz="-0.25 -0.5 1.25" rpy="0 3.14159 0"/>
  4. Add the urdf folder to the installation rule in your CMakeLists.txt so it gets installed where the launch file expects it to be.

    install(DIRECTORY launch urdf DESTINATION share/${PROJECT_NAME}/)
  5. It helps to visualize your URDF as you add links, to verify things look as expected. Run a node that publishes the robot state based on your URDF.

    ros2 run robot_state_publisher robot_state_publisher --ros-args -p robot_description:="`cat ~/ros2_ws/src/myworkcell_support/urdf/workcell.urdf`"

    Note the syntax used to specify a starting parameter value to the node (--ros-args -p param_name:=param_value). Also the use of cat file.urdf to pass the file contents as a string.

    Now run the visualization tool Rviz in a separate terminal.

  6. The default RViz setup only shows a minimal amount of info. You can add various Display elements to customize the display to show exactly what is needed. Inside RViz add a RobotModel display and a TF display using the button in the lower left. Expand the settings for the added RobotModel display and select /robot_description for the field labeled Description Topic. Also make sure in the Global Options that Fixed Frame is set to world. Consider saving this configuration (File -> Save Config) to the default RViz config file, so you don’t need to repeat these setup steps again later.

Challenge Exercise

  • Try adding legs to the table. How does this affect the collision geometry?