Controlling the DeepRacer with a gamepad

Controlling the DeepRacer with a gamepad
Allison Thackston
Dec 29, 2019

The first thing I wanted to do when I got my DeepRacer was to drive it around. It comes with a web interface where you can run it in “manual” mode, but I wanted to use a gamepad controller. (By default the web interface is only controllable via mouse.)

Since the DeepRacer comes pre-loaded with ROS Kinetic, I thought it would be a good idea to use the ROS joystick package which converts raw joystick data into a ROS message and joy_teleop to convert the joystick data into the right ROS message.

ROS Messages

The real power of ROS lies in the standardization of messages. ROS provides a standardized messaging system and interface that enables researchers at different universities to share the code their research code with each other. Using ROS you can focus on the portion of the robotics problem that you’re interested in instead of spending all your time on the non-trivial task of bringing up an entire robotic software system.

So it was an odd choice for Amazon to eschew all standard messages (except for video?) when they released the DeepRacer. Also odd is that I couldn’t find an open-source version of the messages on their GitHub page, making it much more difficult to hack into the system.

Since message headers are needed for interfacing, it’s somewhat customary in ROS to separate messages into a separate package. That way, outside contributors can both introspect and publish to your interfaces without having to have the rest of your code or dependencies. Amazon doesn’t appear to have done this. They seem to have interleaved the new messages they’ve created with the packages they created.

I’m going to assume that Amazon’s ignorance of ROS standards/best practices is to blame here. So I’ve created a package of the deepracer messages for you (so you don’t have to).

You’re welcome Amazon.

Workspace setup

I’ve also done all the work to get you up and running, so long as you have

you should be able to use my deepracer_ws as an IDE for the DeepRacer. For more information on how I set up my workspaces, check my article on docker development.

git clone --branch articles/deepracer_joy --recurse-submodules

This will give you the version of my workspace and the code that I used for this article. It contains a docker container and my VSCode settings.


I ran this on my laptop and connected to the DeepRacer through my home network.

Docker container

The docker container starts with a development install of ROS Kinetic. I maintain a copy of the current versions of ROS on dockerhub. These are optimized versions of ROS that contain the bare minimum needed for development with ROS. They are also tagged with a date, so you can always peg your development to a specific version.

The Dockerfile for the workspace adds a non-root user with sudo access and sets up the working environment for the user.

To connect the docker container to the DeepRacer and use a gamepad as input, you’ll need to run it with a couple of special settings. These are set for you in the devcontainer.json file.


You’ll need to run the container in “privileged” mode by setting the --privileged tag in the run arguments for the container. This will allow you to access the gamepad.


Windows users: the –privileged tag is not supported in docker for Windows. You will need to develop through a VM or run directly on the DeepRacer to connect the gamepad for testing.


You’ll also want to share the host network since ROS communicates over ephemeral ports by setting --network=host tag in the run arguments for the container.

VSCode Tasks

I’ve added a couple of tasks you can use to help use the workspace. Tasks are how I supercharge my development.

  1. build

    The standard build task. Just runs the make command on your workspace.

  2. build (debug)

    Build the code in debug mode. Useful for connecting to debuggers. (You won’t need this one for this since we just configured already existing packages)

    catkin_make -DCMAKE_BUILD_TYPE=Debug
  3. install

    The standard install task. It’s a good practice to install your workspace

    catkin_make install
  4. launch

    This will launch the deepracer_joy with your settings. Note this depends on the “source” tasks, which is convenient because re-sourcing your workspace after you make a change is an often overlooked step.

    source install/setup.bash 2> /dev/null || source devel/setup.bash && roslaunch deepracer_joy deepracer_joy.launch

DeepRacer ROS messages

The first thing you need to do to interface with a ROS topic is link against the headers or include the Python modules. I created a stand-alone package, aws_deepracer_msgs with all of the .msg and .srv files from my DeepRacer. Using this package, you can now include the DeepRacer messages.

There are six packages with custom messages or services:

  1. ctrl_pkg
  2. i2c_pkg
  3. inference_pkg
  4. media_pkg
  5. servo_pkg
  6. software_update_pkg

Of these, the only one the gamepad needs to interface with is the ctrl_pkg.

DeepRacer joystick control

Knowing ROS has joystick teleoperation packages, I figured it wouldn’t be too difficult to set up my DeepRacer to use one of those. The two packages I chose to use are the joy package and the joy_teleop package.

Setting up your gamepad

The first thing you’ll want to do to set up your gamepad is to verify your connection to it. You can do this with the jstest package (which is installed in the docker container).

  1. Find the name of your joystick/gamepad

    ls /dev/input

    Mine is /dev/input/js0

  2. Run jstest to make sure your joystick/gamepad can appropriately connect to your docker container

    sudo jstest --normal /dev/input/js0

    You should see a line of axis and button numbers that change when you press the buttons on your gamepad.


  3. Edit the launch file to update the joystick device name (optionally, you can specify it in the command line in tasks.json)

         <arg name="joystick_device" default="/dev/input/js0" />
  4. Edit the configuration file for your gamepad/joystick

    If you’re using a different gamepad/joystick, you may need to create a new configuration file.

    Using jstest, you can see the axis and button numbers of your device. In the config file, you can edit the axis and button indexes to match your desired control

         type: topic
         message_type: ctrl_pkg/ServoCtrlMsg
         topic_name: /manual_drive
         deadman_buttons: [4]
         - axis: 1
             target: throttle
             scale: 0.5
         - axis: 0
             target: angle
             scale: 0.5
         type: service
         service_name: /enable_state
         isActive: true
         buttons: [4]


    To control the vehicle, you have to both call the /enable_state service to set isActive to true and provide a command input on the manual_drive topic.

    Unfortunately, the joy_teleop package only has hooks for “buttons” that act like a “button_press” event and doesn’t have a way to react to “button_release” events. It would be better if all deadman functionality used the /enable_state service (as I’m sure was intended) instead of listing it both as a service call and in deadman_buttons.

    I’ve always found ROS packages like this. They get you 90% toward your goal but require some additional tweaking to get all the functionality you want.

    Another thing to note is that the DeepRacer command is ‘throttle’ and ‘angle’ which means that mapping both to a single control stick on a gamepad won’t work the way you think it will. As you move the joystick toward a pure turning motion, the forward velocity goes to zero. This means that your DeepRacer won’t be able to turn much unless you either publish out the kinematic conversion or map the fields to different control sticks. For now, I’ve just mapped the axis.

  5. Build and source the code

    catkin_make install
    source install/setup.bash
  6. Set your ros master URI to your DeepRacer IP address and launch the driver

    export ROS_MASTER_URI=http://$DEEPRACER_IP:11311
    export ROS_IP=<your ip address>
    roslaunch deepracer_joy deepracer_joy.launch

    You should now be able to hold down your deadman button and move the gamepad controller around to control your DeepRacer.

    deepracer joystick control


If you want to run this onboard, check out the next post on [running the > > >

deepracer_joy package > > > > onboard](/articles/aws-deepracer-4-joy-onboard.html)

This is only tested as working with Ubuntu 18.04 as the host. In theory, this should work with other flavors of Linux-based systems as well. This has not been tested on MacOsx or Windows systems and they may require additional settings.