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The CRAM-language is a set of macros and functions on top of Common Lisp. It is based on the ideas of Drew McDermott's RPL. Programs in the CRAM language are compiled down to native machine code and make heavy use of the operating system's native multithreading implementation.

Installation and usage

It is suggested to use SLIME for interactive lisp development. If you are using rosemacs, you can use M-x slime-ros to start up slime with the version of sbcl that is distributed with the roslisp_support stack. If you have roslisp setup properly, you can load the cram language by invoking rosmake cram_language and then evaluating (ros-load:load-system "cram_language" :cram-language) in the slime REPL. Change to the CPL package.

If you create a package that uses the CRAM language, don't use the package COMMON-LISP but the package CPL instead. Example:

(defpackage cpl-user
    (:use :cpl))

Whenever you want to execute a CRAM language form in the REPL, you need to enclose it in a top-level form:

    (format t "task 1~%")
    (format t "task 2~%")))

If you define a top-level plan (with def-top-level-plan) it contains an implicit top-level. That means you can execute top-level plans directly from the REPL, without top-level.



Fluents are proxy objects on arbitrary common lisp objects. They are used as variables with changing value, allowing threads to observe the variable and wait for specific changes. Fluents can be combined to fluent networks which allow to express complex conditions. They are an elegant and powerful way to add reactivity to a control program or synchronize between threads.

With the function (wait-for fluent), the current thread blocks if (value fluent) is nil, until it is non-nil. The function (wait-for (pulsed fluent)) blocks until the value of fluent changes, or the fluent gets pulsed.

The macro (whenever fluent) iteratively repeats the body except when (value fluent) is nil before a new iteration. If the fluent is nil at that time, whenever blocks until the fluent becomes true. The whenever form never terminates unless return is called explicitly in the body. See fluent pulse below for details on (whenever (pulsed fluent))

Fluents are created with the function make-fluent. The fluent's value can be accessed through the reader value, can be set with (setf (value fluent) <value>), and can be pulsed with (pulse fluent).

In the following example, a fluent is created and passed to a function that, for instance, spawns a thread and executes a perception routine. The result is put into the fluent's value. The main program sleeps until it receives the value and prints it.

(let ((fl (make-fluent :test-fluent :value nil)))
  (spawn-perception fl)
  (wait-for fl)
  (format t "Received value: ~a~%" (value fl))

We can extend the example to do the print until the fluent's value changes to :done:

(let ((fl (make-fluent :test-fluent :value nil)))
  (spawn-perception fl)
  (whenever (fl)
    (when (eq (value fl :done))
      (return-from whenever))
    (format t "Received value: ~a~%" (value fl))))

Please note that the whenever body is executed continuously, in a loop, as long as the value of fl is non-NIL. If you want to execute the body only on changes, you can use pulsed:

(whenever ((pulsed fl))

see fluent pulses below.

Fluent networks

Fluents can be combined to fluent networks. A fluent network updates its value whenever one of the fluents it is constructed from changes its value. In the CPL package, the most important comparison and math operators (<, >, =, eq, eql, +, -, *, /) are overloaded to construct a fluent network whenever they are called with at least one fluent as parameter. Example:

(wait-for (> fl 20))
(wait-for (< (/ fl 3) 1))

In addition, the logical operators fl-and, fl-or and fl-not are defined. Please note that they this is necessary since common lisp's logical operators have a slightly different semantics. For instance, AND returns the first non-nil value, whereas FL-AND returns a fluent containing T or nil.

To create user defined fluent operators, the combinator fl-funcall can be used. It is similar to funcall, but whenever at least one of its parameters is a fluent, a fluent network containing the result of the function call with its parameters. It gets updated whenever one of the parameter fluents changes its value. This is especially useful when a fluent contains an instance of a CLOS object and the user wants to wait for a condition defined on one of its slots. Example (pose-fl is a fluent containing a pose object with the slots x, y and z:

(wait-for (fl-and (> (fl-funcall #'x pose-fl) 10)
                  (< (fl-funcall #'y pose-fl) 3)))

Fluent pulses

Whenever the value of a fluent is set to a different value, the fluent is pulsed. To trigger a wait-for to wake up or a whenever body to execute without actually changing the fluent's value, fluents can also be pulsed with the pulse method. To construct a fluent network that reacts if its parameter gets pulsed, the combinator pulsed can be used.

The combinator (pulsed fl) has 3 optional keywords to deal with "missed pulses" within a (whenever) block. Those are all pulses that occured during execution of the whenever body. whenever in combination with a pulse can be imagined as an infinite loop waiting for a pulse, then executing the body. pulsed supports three different ways to handle pulses that occur during the execution of a whenever body:

Note: (pulsed) should never be used outside (whenever (pulsed ...)) or (wait-for (pulsed ...)). In particular the result of (pulsed) should not be stored in variables or passed around, as the nature and behavior of the return object is unspecified on purpose and may change over time.

Definition of Functions (Plans)

Although it is possible to call normal common lisp functions and methods within a CRAM program, it is strongly encouraged to use def-cram-function. The reason is that plans that are defined with def-cram-function are transparent to the execution system. That means, calls to them can be traced (automatic logging), and their code can be replaced on the fly by transformation rules. In addition, they can be referenced by the function task by specifying a code path. Top level functions, i.e. functions that are intended to be called from the lisp top level and not inside a plan are defined with the macro def-top-level-cram-function.

def-cram-function uses the same syntax as defun, e.g.

  (def-cram-function robot-at (location)
    "Attempts to move robot towards location. Succeeds once robot is at given location."

Plans can be nested into each other. To execute a plan, a top-level context is required, meaning either a plan defined with def-top-level-plan, or running a plan using:

   (let ((location ...))
     (robot-at location)))

TODO: Explain code-tree and task hierarchy.

Control Flow

The CRAM Language provides several macros for executing forms in parallel and synchronize on them. All language constructs introduced here have clear failure semantics. A sub-form can have status :failed, :succeeded and :evaporated. :failed means that a common lisp condition has been thrown and the form failed. :succeeded means that the form terminated successfully. :evaporated means that the form has been preempted because it became unnecessary (e.g. due to a failure of a task running in parallel).


CRAM language forms must be executed in a top-level environment. Please note that def-top-level-plan contains an implicit top-level form.

top-level forms cannot be nested.

Sequences and concurrency

When there are several independent functions to execute, different combination types are possible, with respect to order vs. concurrency, early success and failure handling. Cram defines 5 different grouping concepts to deal with the meaningful combinations.

Functions can be called in sequence or in parallel. When called in sequence, we can run them all, or until the first one succeeds. This is captured by (seq) and (try-in-order).

When functions are called in parallel, we can fail as soon as one fails, or only if all have failed. If we continue as long as none fails, we can succeed (and stop all others) if one succeeded, or we can wait until all succeeded. Those concepts are captured by (par), (pursue) and (try-all).


Execute forms sequentially. This is essentially equivalent to Common Lisp's progn. seq fails if one of its sub-forms fails and succeeds when all succeed.


Execute forms in parallel. Fail if one fails, succeed after all succeeded. Example:



Execute forms in parallel. Fail if one fails, succeed when one succeeds. All other forms are evaporated when one form succeeds. This is especially useful for implementing monitors or run code until a condition holds:

  (wait-for (robot-at waypoint))
  (loop do
    (update-navigation-cmd waypoint)
    (sleep 0.1))

In the example above, the form terminates successfully when the robot is at the waypoint. Navigation commands to approach the waypoint are sent to the robot repeatedly.


Perform concurrently. Fail if all fail, succeed if one succeeded.


Perform in sequence like seq, but only fail if all fail, succeed after one succeeded.




Evaporation and unwind-protect

The concurrency constructs spawn new independent threads. In contrast to other multi-threaded languages, cram allows errors to be propagated from child threads to their parent threads seamlessly.

The consructs for concurrency all also allow implicit evaporation. Meaning as soon as the construct (par, pursue, try) ends by either success or failure, the other child threads are evaporated.

The evaporation of threads also allows the lisp construct (unwind-protect), with which code blocks can have guard blocks that get executed in any case (normal course of action, evaporation and failure).

TODO: Describe whether code evaporation happens concurrently to continuation of parent, or whether constructs block until all child threads have evaporated.

Exception Handling


plan failures are generated and thrown using the (fail ...) function. Fail is similar to Common Lisp's error but adds some special handling of conditions that are a sub-type of plan-failure. These should not cause Lisp to enter the debugger.


The with-failure-handling macro allows to wrap function calls so that if a failure occurs, failure handling code is executed. E.g.:

              ((trajectory-controller-failed (e)
                  (declare (ignore e))
            (move-arm-to-point side pre-grasp-pos grasp))

In this case we monitor for failures of type trajectory-controller-failed, and if they happen we call (retry) meaning we just run the body again on each failure until we succeed. (move-arm-to-point ...) is the body in this case.


In Cram goals are a concept to ground plans in a first-order representation. That allows to reason about the purpose of plans. A goal is an expression that describes the semantics of the corresponding code. For instance, the goal (achieve ?occ) indicates that the code only succeeds if the system beliefs that it could make the occasion ?occ hold. A more concrete example is (achieve (loc ?obj ?loc)) which indicates that the purpose of the code is to achieve that an object is placed at a specific location.

Which kinds of occasions are needed for a platform depends on the domain it operates in. It is up to the goal designer to decide which occasion types to declare. To start with, a common choice could be a general occasion like (achieve <occasion>).

Declaring occasion types is done like this:

(declare-goal achieve (occasion))

TODO: Explain body options for declare-goal

Once an occasion type has been declared like above, goals can be defined for that type like this:

(def-goal (achieve (at-point (?location)))
  "when goal is achieved, robot is at point"
  (robot-at ?location))

This uses a plan defined like earlier on this page. (Technical detail: The syntax with the question marks is specific to the pattern matching used. Since for one occasion different goals can be defined, the actual goal is determined during runtime using pattern matching.)

Instead of running the plan robot-at, we can that way make the robot achieve this goal:

(top-level (achieve `(at-point ,(make-2d-pose 3 3 0))))

Whether the 2d pose object works with the goal depends on the implementation of the robot-at plan.

By structuring the robots plans as goals the executive framework gains new meta-abilities, such as the robot being able to explain at any time what purpose it is following, or handling of failures at runtime given the context of current purposes.

Further References

A clear and complete introduction is Tobias Christian Rittweiler's bachelor thesis on CRAM

2024-07-13 13:15