The design and construction of complex and reconfigurable embedded systems such as small autonomous mobile robots is a challenging task that involves the selection, interfacing, and programming of a large number of sensors and actuators. Facilitating this tedious process requires modularity and extensibility both in hardware and software components. In this paper, we introduce the universal robot bus (URB), a real-time fieldbus architecture that facilitates rapid integration of heterogeneous sensor and actuator nodes to a central processing unit (CPU) while providing a software abstraction that eliminates complications arising from the lack of hardware homogeneity. Motivated by our primary application area of mobile robotics, URB is designed to be very lightweight and efficient, with real-time support for Recommended Standard (RS) 232 or universal serial bus connections to a central computer and inter-integrated circuit (I(2)C), controller area network, or RS485 bus connections to embedded nodes. It supports automatic synchronization of data acquisition across multiple nodes, provides high data bandwidth at low deterministic latencies, and includes flexible libraries for modular software development both for local nodes and the CPU. This paper describes the design of the URB architecture, provides a careful experimental characterization of its performance, and demonstrates its utility in the context of its deployment in a legged robot platform.