Custom elements and attributes

  • Authors: Addisu Taddese <>
  • Status: Accepted
  • SDFormat Version: 1.7
  • libsdformat Version: 9.0


SDFormat aims to be a specification for describing simulations without being closely coupled with specific simulators such as Gazebo. It is also a goal of this project to provide libsdformat as the canonical library for parsing SDFormat files. As SDFormat gets more widely used by other applications, it is natural for developers of those applications to want to extend SDFormat beyond the latest standard to specify parameters for additional features they create. Since these features and their corresponding parameters may start out being specific to each application, it may make more sense to make a custom extension rather than immediately trying to extend the existing SDFormat specification. Thus, developers are forced to either implement their own parser instead of using libsdformat or resort to specifying their custom parameters in an external file and handle cross referencing in their code. Both of these options are suboptimal. Writing their own parsers is time consuming and may become a maintenance burden. Trying to maintain different model files for a single model, e.g. an SDFormat file and an auxiliary set of custom parameters, may be error prone as the two files must always be kept in sync, for example, if the name of an element changes.


The proposed solution for the described problem is to give developers the ability to specify custom XML elements and attributes in SDFormat. This proposal will describe

  • A convention for specifying custom elements and attributes in SDFormat
  • Support/API in libsdformat for handling and exposing the custom elements and attributes
  • Rules for where custom elements and attributes are admissible

Specifying custom elements and attributes

Note: TinyXML, used by libsdformat to parse SDFormat files, does not have native support for XML namespaces. Some of the following requirements and conventions are in place due to this limitation.

To avoid name clashes with future versions of SDFormat and to ensure the interoperability of SDFormat files between various software, custom elements and attributes are required to be prefixed by an XML namespace prefix. Consequently, elements and attributes that are not prefixed do not have a namespace and are considered valid only if they appear in the SDFormat standard.

Namespaces are to be declared using an attribute name that begins with xmlns: (see W3C Recommendation for more details). A Namespace declared using the attribute name xmlns (without the colon) is not permitted due to the aforementioned limitation in libsdformat.

Here's an example of a namespace prefix, foo, a namespace name,, a custom attribute foo:type that specifies that the world uses 2 dimensional physics and a custom element <foo:description> that adds a description of the world that can then be displayed by the application at runtime.

<sdf version="1.6" xmlns:foo="">
  <world name="W" foo:type="2d">
    <foo:description>Description of this world</foo:description>

Attributes of custom elements may be specified without namespace prefixes. This can be justified since these attributes are properties of the custom elements and would not clash with attributes used by the standard SDFormat specification. Requiring namespaces for such attributes would make SDFormat files too verbose. The following is an example of this usage:

<sdf version="1.6" xmlns:foo="">
  <world name="W" foo:type="2d">
    <foo:vehicle name="V1" type="4wheel"/>

In this example the attributes name and type of the custom element foo:vehicle appear without namespace.

As shown in the examples so far, it is customary to set the value of the namespace, i.e, the namespace name, to the URI containing the schema of the namespace. Note, however, that libsdformat treats the provided URI as any other string literal with no special meaning.

This proposal advocates for a convention where namespaces are declared only in the root element of an SDFormat file. This would mean only the <sdf> tag in an SDFormat file may have the xmlns: attribute.

However, the proposal still allows for namespaces to be declared on any element of SDFormat. Although not enforced by libsdformat, users should comply with the namespace scoping and uniqueness rules defined in the W3C Recommendation when declaring such namespaces. The scoping rules state:

The scope of a namespace declaration declaring a prefix extends from the beginning of the start-tag in which it appears to the end of the corresponding end-tag.


<model name="M1" xmlns:flatland="">
  <flatland:custom_elem>Description of this world</flatland:custom_elem> <!--Valid use of <flatland:custom_elem>-->
  <link name="L" flatland:custom_attr="A" /> <!--Valid use of <flatland:custom_attr>-->

<model name="M2">
  <flatland:custom_elem>Description of this world</flatland:custom_elem> <!--Invalid use of <flatland:custom_elem>. The flatland prefix is not in scope-->
  <link name="L" flatland:custom_attr="A" /> <!--Invalid use of <flatland:custom_attr>-->

Since default namespaces are not permitted in this proposal, the uniqueness rules apply only to namespace prefixes. The following is an example that violates the uniqueness rules

<model name="M1" xmlns:flatland="" xmlns:flatland="">

Support/API in libsdformat

The current behavior of libsdformat is to ignore unknown elements, but to print a warning for unknown attributes. The proposed behavior is for libsdformat to stop issuing warnings if it detects an unknown attribute that is prefixed by a namespace prefix. Since default namespaces are not allowed, this amounts to checking if an attribute name contains the : character. This relies on the conformance requirement of the W3C recommendation that in a namespace-well-formed document, all element and attribute names contain either zero or one colons.

The proposed API makes use of the sdf::ElementPtr (a pointer to sdf::Element) as the proxy to XML elements. libsdformat provides an sdf::ElementPtr for any of the XML elements that appear in the SDFormat specification, such as <world>, <model>, and <link>. This can be accomplished by calling Element() on the corresponding classes sdf::World, sdf::Model, and sdf::Link. The sdf::ElementPtr to the root <sdf> element is obtained by calling sdf::Root::Element().

Once an sdf::ElementPtr object is available, its attributes can be retrieved by calling sdf::Element::GetAttribute(). To get the value of a custom attribute, the name of the attribute passed to GetAttribute must contain the namespace prefix of the attribute. For example, if the custom attribute name is flatland:custom_attr, the function call would be GetAttribute("flatland:custom_attr").

Child elements of sdf::ElementPtr are obtained by calling sdf::Element::GetElement(). This function takes the names of the child element as its first argument and returns an sdf::ElementPtr, which can be further queried for more sibling or child elements using sdf::Element::GetNextElement() or sdf::Element::GetElement() respectively. To get an sdf::ElementPtr for a custom element, the name of the element passed to GetElement must contain the namespace prefix of the element. For example, if the custom element name is foo:description, the function call would be GetElement("foo:description"). Note that sdf::Element::GetElement() can modify the underlying sdf::Element by adding a child element with the provided argument if the child element does not already exist. Thus, it is safer to first check if the child element exists using sdf::Element::HasElement().

An alternative, but more convenient, function to retrieve the values of attributes or child elements is sdf::Elemenet::Get<T>(). Refer to the API documentation for its usage.


Consider the following SDFormat file that utilizes custom elements and attributes

<?xml version="1.0" ?>
<sdf xmlns:flatland="" version="1.6">
  <world name="W" flatland:type="2d">
    <flatland:description>Description of this world</flatland:description>
    <model name="M1">
      <link name="L1" flatland:custom_attr_str="A" flatland:custom_attr_int="5" />
      <link name="L2" />
      <joint name="J1" type="revolute">

      <flatland:transmission name="simple_trans">
        <flatland:joint name="J1">

The code that retrieves the custom elements and attributes is given by

#include "sdf/sdf.hh"


const std::string SDF_TEST_FILE = /* Fill in with file path */

sdf::Root root;

const sdf::World *world = root.WorldByIndex(0);

// Use of sdf::World::Element() to obtain an sdf::ElementPtr object
sdf::ElementPtr worldElement = world->Element();

// Use of sdf::ElementPtr::GetAttribute()
sdf::ParamPtr typeParam = worldElement->GetAttribute("flatland:type");
std::string simType;
// Use of sdf::ParamPtr::Get<T>()

const sdf::Model *model = world->ModelByIndex(0);

const sdf::Link *link1 = model->LinkByIndex(0);
// Use of sdf::Link::Element() to obtain an sdf::ElementPtr object
sdf::ElementPtr link1Element = link1->Element();

// Use of sdf::ElementPtr::Get<T>() to obtain the value of an attribute
auto customAttrStr = link1Element->Get<std::string>("flatland:custom_attr_str");

auto customAttrInt = link1Element->Get<int>("flatland:custom_attr_int");

// Use of sdf::Model::Element() to obtain an sdf::ElementPtr object
sdf::ElementPtr modelElement = model->Element();

sdf::ElementPtr transmission = modelElement->GetElement("flatland:transmission");
auto transmissionName = transmission->Get<std::string>("name");

auto transmissionType = transmission->Get<std::string>("flatland:type");

sdf::ElementPtr tranJointElement = transmission->GetElement("flatland:joint");
auto tranJointName = tranJointElement->Get<std::string>("name");

sdf::ElementPtr transHwInterfaceElement =

// Use of sdf::ElementPtr::Get<T>() to obtain the value of a child element
auto tranHwInterface =


Rules for where custom elements and attributes can be used

The following are general rules that constrain where and how custom elements and attributes can be used in an SDFormat document.

  1. Custom elements and attributes can only add new information. They cannot be used to remove or replace information. For example, a user who wants to specify the dimensions of a <cylinder> element using its diameter instead of its radius, as is the case in the standard SDFormat specification, may not add a custom <prefix:diameter> element to replace <radius>. In the case of <cylinder>, <radius> is a required element and must be specified.

  2. Custom elements may not change the topology or parent-child relationship of XML elements in an SDFormat document. For example, links are always direct children of models. It is conceivable that a user might want to wrap a number of links in a model with a custom element to give them a certain semantics as in the following snippet.

    <model name="M">
        <link name="L1"/>
        <link name="L2"/>

    Since this changes the topology of the XML elements defined in the standard SDFormat specification, it is not permitted.