- Max telling Charlie how he upgraded Atom, in the movie Real Steel.
|Ambush Noisy Boy Atom|
I'm not here to deliver ideas from Hollywood, but we all know that machines are built from parts that are otherwise separate elements. What we seem to take for granted is that some machines in our world are made in a way where the composing elements can be traded out with completely different parts. I don't blame anyone; it's not very normal to think about how a Honda Accord with a V4 engine can so easily be refitted with a V6 engine. The thought only comes to mind when you actually want to modify the car intentionally.
Then there's the concept of adding parts without removing others, because the frame of the machine has vacant connection ports that have been standardized to allow any of a full set of custom parts. Take for example the pylons on fighter jets, such as the common F-16. Let's see what any of the pylons on the wings can hold...external fuel tanks? air-to-air missiles? laser guided bombs? Oh, I know - an advanced navigation system! How about at least one of each all at once? We have enough space for it, after all!
But wait...it seems other fighters can use the exact same attachments that we just put on our F-16. Observe: the AGM-65 Maverick air-to-ground missile on both the F-16 and the F-15:
|F-16 with green Maverick missiles F-15 with grey Maverick missile|
[A slice of a gun rail mount]
The concept being addressed is known as modularity. I'm sure we all have a strong understanding of what this means, but let's review the technical denotation of the word, pulling definitions from several dictionaries:
a) "The degree to which a system's components may be separated and recombined."
b) "Designed with standardized units or dimensions, as for easy assembly and repair or flexible arrangement."
c) "The use of individually distinct functional units, as in assembling an electronic or mechanical system."
d) "Having parts that can be connected or combined in different ways."
Excellent. Now we know four different ways to explain the meaning. Now that this has been established, allow me to explain the real juice of Project FRAME in terms of modularity. The fact that devices such as cars, jets, and computers have very modular construction is largely due to them having rather simple and distinct mechanical parts. A car has four wheels and an engine, with axle connections to transfer mechanical power. A jet has its engine as well, wings with tilting flaps powered by hydraulic cylinders for steering, and pylons that mechanically hook and unhook to attach devices or release missiles. Computers have no mechanical parts, save the cooling fan and the DVD drive. When the complexity of the mechanical parts is minimized, the system seems to enjoy wider modular capabilities, because it is much easier to globally standardize port attachments for hard-drives rather than axle connections for car engines.
Now we make way for the overarching purpose of Project FRAME. After the discussion about mechanical complexity limiting the global standardization of a modular frame, imagine the standardization of a humanoid robot frame. Or a quadrupedal vehicle frame. Or a robotic exoskeleton frame. All such machines are extremely complex mechanically, and it does not seem that they will be put into modular frames without taking specific efforts to do so. Cars for example became modular out of necessity and the ease of achieving it, whereas advanced robotic platforms are just far too complex to assume that they will naturally fall into standardized frames, a phenomenon exhibited by the auto industry. In fact, the advanced robots that do exist today are made only by single companies, organizations, or universities, and their design schematics are not being shared on the grounds of copyrights. You see, when you make something so complex and unique, yet it serves a difficult purpose, you don't really want to show how all the parts are connected together. You want people to come back to you to modify the machine after they buy it from you, like monopolization. What needs to be done is to form some sort of global agreement - among the companies of the world - to manufacture advanced robot elements that fit together no matter where the parts are from, or even how they are designed. The point is that their connection ports have to be exactly the same. A robotic claw with four fingers should connect to an arm where a drilling tool can be mounted instead, for example. Hydraulic cylinders that power heavy joints should be available at varying performance levels, differing by the amount of energy they consume. A vehicle that moves via caterpillar tracks should have the flexibility to have the tracks replaced with a multi-legged mobility platform. Now think - how on Earth will robotic machines become modular all by themselves? The answer is they won't. It happened to cars because it was easy. It happened to planes because it was easy. It happened to computers because it was like making pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. But advanced robots? Not really a homemade-jigsaw-puzzle type of thing. You need the manufacturers to agree that all variants of this element will connect this way, and all variants of that element will connect that way.
Now comes the creative part - what kinds of elements are we talking about exactly, and how should their connection ports be designed to prepare for global standardization? This is where Project FRAME really comes in. The discussion team of Project FRAME essentially has two goals: 1) to determine how to get companies to agree on advanced robot frame standardization, and 2) to present ideas for standard frame designs. I urge anyone even moderately interested to leave comments, or better yet to become an author of this blog by messaging me (firstname.lastname@example.org). Project FRAME is designed to be a collaborative effort. The transition to the next generation of robotics technology will simply not happen if every organization is making separate robots that only they can fix and upgrade. Advanced robots will become far too expensive as the market becomes monopolized, which will inevitably happen unless a global effort is made to make a modular system, or systems.
To finish off, here's some food for thought. Compare the images generated by completely different artists. You may recognize the first one: