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Turned out to be an embarassingly simple problem with joint names, but without gazebo running in verbose mode, there's no feedback.

I changed my launch file to include:

 <include file="$(find gazebo_ros)/launch/empty_world.launch">
    <arg name="verbose" value="true"/>
    <!--arg name="debug" value="true"/-->
 </include>

Which then gave me the more useful output:

[Err] [gazebo_ros_skid_steer_drive.cpp:273] EXCEPTION: GazeboRosSkidSteerDrive Plugin (ns = //) couldn't get left rear hinge joint named "back_left_wheel_joint"

[Err] [Model.cc:1010] Exception occured in the Load function of plugin with name[skid_steer_drive_controller] and filename[libgazebo_ros_skid_steer_drive.so]. This plugin will not run.

Although I guess this is a bug in Gazebo, it should fail to load the plugin, not crash out entirely.

This error wasn't caught with the diff_drive controller because I was using the front wheels joints. My back wheels were prefixed with rear not back hence the failure.