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The ‘Smart Modular Robot’

CST evaluates ideas for creating modular robotic systems suitable for the move to creating smart robots that will eventually replace most jobs.

There is of course already some standardisation in the robotics field, the IFR & VDMA et al have various standards.  However, these are currently limited and follow the relatively slow pace of current introduction of robotics in mainly the manufacturing industries. 

CST considers that we shall see a step change in the availability and use of robotic devices at some point in the future.  This will happen when the costs and performance meet the critical tipping point where many tasks can be automated for significantly less than a human employee.

To get to this point, we set out some ideas below that bring together current trends and potential standardisation to provide a significant and ongoing improvement in capability.  Crucially, these ideas, working together, will provide significant potential for cost reduction while at the same time massively broadening the potential automation applications.

1) Core Modular

There seems an obvious path to efficient mass robotics that enable a large range of designer robotic devices. Creation of a re-usable set of core units that can be exchanged, interchanged and built up to create more complex robot systems, will help the efficient production of many different types of robotic systems.

Unlike natural animals, it will be a long time before robots can change their task orientated functionality to meet a specific need.  The use of interchangeable core parts, along with additional precisely specific parts will allow quick and efficient production and malleability to achieve similar functionality to that of a more intelligent natural system..

This can be considered as an equivalent to object orientated processing, where re-usable sets of code that have pre-defined and known inputs and output types can be assembled to create a larger program.

The base design needs to enable cross functionality, where any combination can be utilised.  This means an industry-wide set of updatable standards.

Examples of such modules are:

An industry-wide cooperative set of standards could allow the creation of specific functionality by industrial sector.  The beauty of this approach is that if you need very specific functionality, you only need to create an add-on module that utilises many other core modules to create your final robot that does a very specific job.

Furthermore, with a store of basic modules, different tasks can be precisely achieved by swapping out modules as and when required.  This means that many different tasks can be cost effectively achieved with a much lower cost of entry.

Sub Modular
Using the same premise, modules can be built-up from sub-modules.  For instance, a movement module may comprise of several joint, leg and feet modules.  All modules and sub modules utilise the same standards to create interoperability.

2) Smartness

Some tasks need more processing power than others.  Smartness is expensive, a modular approach means that the final robot only uses the processing power required for each job at hand.

This can be achieved in two ways, firstly there is a basic range of processing modules that add-on processing power.  These can be modules that have specific functionality such as high end parallel processing to enable camera and graphical interfaces, or mathematical processing for calibration sensors etc.  These need the same interfaces, input and output standards with updatable inter-modular linkage systems that take care of these standards, making them all backwards compatible.

Secondly, there must be ‘online’ distributed processing at various levels of complexity, speed and data functionality.  This source of processing and data is also ‘modular’ in the sense that the final smart robot configuration will only call upon the necessary level of online help that is required to achieve the task in hand.  This provides efficient use of these distributed resources.  Specific online resources can be aligned to modular functions to leverage the effectiveness of that module.

This means that two robotic devices using the same or similar modules, will be able to achieve different jobs due to the distributed resource they tap into.  For instance a single robot system may be used to move around stock parts using little or no distributed functionality, the same robot may be used for a more complex task say loading a dishwasher by accessing high level distributed processing and data to make sense of the dishwasher functionality and the loading processes.

3) Standards for Flexible Change  – the ‘go between interface module'

A major part of the necessary interoperability across all modules are the precise standards that allow this to occur.   These should allow for change as standards often become a significant barrier to ongoing development.   Perhaps a way of achieving this would be to create a ‘go between’ interface module that sits between each and every module and adapts the signals and data to adjust for changing functionality and changing standards.

Such a ‘go between module’ might interrogate and check each adjoining module or sensor and adjust the inputs and outputs to make the most of the full abilities of each.  For instance an older less capable module cannot utilise the latest set of functional calls, or process data steams at the current rate.  The go between module would adapt the speed and addressable functionality to create the required input and output for the attached newer module.  If an older module is incapable of the necessary functionality, the go between would not allow its use and advise the core processing module.

This calls into question the functionality of the communication system within the robot modules and across the final configure robot.  To enable such functionality, there needs to be a central ‘nervous’ system that links each ‘go between module’ to the main processor and thus the distributed online processing system.  With such a linked communication system it can be seen that each module can be precisely controlled irrespective of its functionality, and in real time.  Such a system would allow, internal reconfiguration for continued use, for instance if a leg module fails, the robot could automatically reprogram itself as a three legged device.
This creates a very flexible overall system and enable each modular robot to maximise it's capabilities throughout it's lifespan.  This also builds a powerful mechanism for error checking and prevention of harm in the event of a module failure. 

Manufacturing Costs

One of the most important issues along our proposed path of ‘Smart Robotics’ is to drive down manufacturing costs.  We know that this happens when volume meets demand.  To gain more quickly such an advantage, the modular approach provides a playing field for manufacturers across the world to compete.

Many smaller businesses would be empowered to create niche modules that do a very specific task. There are many such sector driven businesses already and they add value to the sector. For instance, medical devices require such an approach, smaller businesses are ideal to provide ongoing innovation as they understand exactly what is required.

Larger businesses can use their size and volume manufacturing to provide core modules. With interchangeability built into the flexible specification path, good competition will create a mass market for such core modules.

Provided the standards are high and flexible, this modula approach provides for a much quicker transition to volume manufacturing of smart robots and their applications in many industry and consumer sectors.



Modular Robotics – the next generation of
‘smart modular robots’

Here we evaluate ideas for creating 'smart modular robotic' systems that leverage current technology.

The speed of advancement for smart robotic technology dictates many of the outcomes for many unfolding issues within our societies - from economic theories to cheap clean energy and most transportation.