Self Reconfiguring Modular Robotics Essentials

This post defines three fundamental properties of Self-Reconfiguring Modular Robotics, SRCMR and then summarizes and elaborates on some consequences of them.

Fundamental properties

It is fundamental to SRCMR solutions to:

Divide a task among many units that handle the task jointly

This may seem simple and not that revolutionary, but it allows the individual units (modules) to be basic. As tasks are similar deep down, the units become generally applicable, and this has profound consequences.

Self-reconfigure

The units can do this in three ways
1. They can move among each other.
2. They can change their size.
3. They can change a particular property, like colour.

This makes it possible to facilitate change in every scale. For example, a SRCMR solution can adjust its size a fraction of a millimeter or transform its shape completely, from say a chair to a table. It also allows them to control any particular property they need, for instance changing from a red chair to a blue one.

Control the self-reconfiguration with software

This automates the self-reconfiguration process and allows the solution to respond dynamically. For example, a chair solution can adapt to a user moving in it to make it more comfortable for the user.

Consequences

In short, the consequences of having basic units that self-reconfigure under software control are:

  • Production is less complex because units are made in fewer types.
  • Development of solutions is basically software development.
  • Reliability is revolutionized by the solutions’ ability to self-repair.
  • Environmental impact is reduced by reassignment.
  • Basic economics are transformed by reassignment.
  • Availability of SRCMR solutions will be amazing because units are made in fewer types.
  • Productivity is increased by a better fit between tool and task.

To sum up the consequences SRCRM will have, I get to quote myself, in a post on Douglas Engelbart’s presentation of NLS from 1968.  In that post I paraphrased one critical sentence from his presentation like this:

“If you were supplied with a system, that is low cost, environmentally friendly, virtually unbreakable, and able to form a wide variety of physical structures, that could perform many tasks.

What value could you derive from that?”

The value of SRCMR is a totally new level of freedom derived from a totally new level of flexibility.

This will bring revolutionary changes to the world.

Unit Production

Units are made in relatively few types when compared to old school products. This is possible because the specifics of one solution are in the arrangement of units and the controlling software and not in the physical appearance of the parts.

And as one particular unit type is used in many different solutions, each type is made in large quantities and therefore the producer can expect a stable demand.

This will make it possible to produce the units cheaply and efficiently in a highly optimised and streamlined process.

Product Development

As the producer of the units handles all physical issues, the developer of SRCMR solutions needs no physical production capabilities. They develop software that assembles the solution from units that the user already has or can buy or rent easily and cheaply.

This will make SRCMR solutions much easier, cheaper and faster to bring to market.

It will actually be so much so that it will change the way businesses are started, funded and run.

This is not a development that is unique to SRCMR, this change already happened in the web development world. There, companies are started with much less money and become profitable without the major investments needed for old school products. 1, 2.

And how businesses operate shape a large part of our world so this will have profound consequences.

Reliability

Self-repair using hot spares will prevent solutions from breaking the way old school products do, and make solutions incredibly resilient.

This already speaks to people as a YouTube video of a SRCMR system self-repairing after it’s been kicked apart has more than a million views!

Being able to trust a solution in a different way than you can an old school product seems to be very important to people.

But the difference in reliability does not only come from the self-healing, the software that controls solutions will be just as important. Solutions will have much more behavior built in and therefore they will handle edge cases much better. They can degrade gracefully when old school products just break, like for example the beep in an overloaded lift.

And when solutions break, the spare parts are just more units, that for the most part are general, and thus more available and cheaper than spare parts for old school products.

Reduced environmental impact

Reassignment is the fundamentally new way self-reconfiguring modular robotics reduces the ecological footprint of our lives. It adds a totally new level beyond reuse and recycling. Reassignment is fundamental to SRCMR and comes from the process of changing one solution, that is currently not needed, to another solution by reconfiguration of the same units among each other and changing their properties. This reduces the resources required to the units needed concurrently. This is very different from old school products that need the combined resources of all products that are ever needed.

Self-repairing also reduces waste of natural resources in several ways. Firstly, it extends the life of solutions by making it possible and economical to repair them in a new way. This differs from the way old school products break and more often than not are so difficult or expensive to repair that they are simply thrown away. They are thrown away despite that they are mostly in good working order and many of their parts have not reached the end of their service life. Secondly, the increased reliability will remove the need to keep spares as we do with old school products that we use for important tasks.

Moving design and appearance from hardware into software will also help reduce the environmental impact caused by unnecessarily discarding working products because a newer model is available or because they have gone out of fashion. You could imagine replacing the units forming the skin with a new colour instead of replacing the whole product.

Reuse of parts and recycling of materials is also made easier and more efficient. This is because there are vastly fewer unit types and their parts than there are of old school products and their parts. This reduces the demands on the system handling reuse and recycling, and makes it possible to automate the process.

And just as important as what SRCMR solutions do to reduce the ecological footprint is how they do it. The benefits are in the very fabric of solutions and they will emerge automatically. They are not an afterthought or an add on, as much of what we try to do with old school products to reduce their environmental impact.

This will make SRCMR a significant cleantech revolution.

Basic economics are changed

Reassignment is the fundamentally new way self-reconfiguring modular robotics reduces the cost of handling a task.

Reassignment reduces the number and types of units to what is needed to implement the maximum number of solutions you need concurrently.

This reduces the cost of SRCMR solutions compered to old school products.

For old school products you pay for all you ever need, not only the ones you use concurrently.

But you practically need to spend even less as units are easy to buy secondhand or rent much like we rent chairs when we have a large party. Units are easier to trade because they are intelligent in a way that lets the buyer know the state of the units and how they have been used by the previous owner.

And units will be cheap because they are made in few types, large quantities and demand is stable because they are a part of many solutions.

The software part of solutions can also be sold with totally new business models as it is cheap to develop and distribute and can be made interactive.

Adding it all up, that you spend less on hardware and that software could be free will cut costs so much that it will truly change the nature of our financial lives.

Availability

The first and most common part in distributing a solution is ridiculously simple. The software part is a trivial download. And most of the time you already have the units needed and you are ready to go within minutes!

But sometimes you might not have all the units required.

The difference in distribution of the units compared to old school products comes from two differences between units based solutions and old school products.

  • Because the units are general there are radically fewer types of units compared to old school products and their parts.
  • The same units are used in many different solutions for many different tasks compared to old school products and their parts.

This will change the way units are distributed to something similar to the distribution of standard components with a limited variability, a broad use, long shelf life, high turnover and small size. This means that you:

  • You could order every imaginable unit on the Internet. And because they are easy to stock and store, they can be shipped from a place close to you, so most of the time they will arrive within 24 hours with normal post delivery.
  • You could buy them over the counter in nearly every shop, small amounts of the most common units in your local corner convenience store or larger amounts of nearly all types in your local grocery store within just a few blocks.
  • You could order them for delivery service like pizza and since there is no preparation delivery times may be as short as 15-20 minutes.

This will give you the choice to get them really cheap or really fast, 24 /7.

Or you might just borrow some units from your neighbor, like the proverbial cup of sugar.

This will make unit-based solutions accessible in a way that is just mind-boggling.

You will be able to handle any task, that there is a unit based solution for, within minutes.

Productivity

SRCMR will increase productivity in several ways:

  • The flexibility of SRCMR solutions will create tools that better fit the task at hand.
  • The user is assisted by the software in a solution.
  • The software in a solution can handle tasks autonomously.
  • The Greater reliability of solutions will reduce down time.

This will have many consequences as we can perform what we do today much faster and parts of what we do today can be made into autonomous solutions.

A new world

These and many other factors will make the new world created by Self Reconfiguring Modular Robotics very different. And it is going to be a wild, crazy, tough, but first and foremost, as I see it, an absolutely fascinating ride.

I would like to thank people for reading this post, their feedback have been invaluable. The responsibility for the post is entirely mine.
Neil Desmond, Christina Israelsson, Mårten Lundh, Maria Sjöborg Wiksten, Peter Umerkajeff.

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