Google Releases Project Ara MDK

Ara Modules


It’s been a little while since we’ve heard about modular smartphones, but Google has just released the Module Developers Kit (MDK) for Project Ara. The development kit gives an overview of the inner workings of the project, and provides templates for building your own modules.

Once you’ve agreed to the license agreement and downloaded the MDK, you’ll find a large specification document. It explains how a phone will comprise of many modules loaded into an endoskeleton, giving mechanical support and electrical connections. An interface block provides each module with power and data over LVDS. Modules are held in place by an electro-permanent magnet which can be toggled by software.

When you’re finished with the specification document, you can dive into the reference designs. These include templates and actual modules for WiFi, thermal imaging, a battery pack, and more. Mechanical CAD is provided as STEP files and drawings, and electrical design files are provided as Altium projects and PDF schematics.

We discussed both Project Ara and Phonebloks on Hackaday in the past, but now we’re starting to see real details. Google’s Project Ara Developer Conference takes place on April 15th and 16th, and you can register to take part remotely for free. Is this the start of an open, modular phone? Let us know what you think.

[Thanks to Adam for the tip]

39 thoughts on “Google Releases Project Ara MDK

  1. I wonder how they are hoping to get FCC part 15 (or eqv) EMC/EMI certification. This is much more than getting the RF module(s) certified.

    Electronics leaks RF signals & harmonics. If everything were perfectly shielded, there wouldn’t be FCC certification. You are physically changing the configuration of the product so may be it has a fast processor as an option or having some garage door opener gadget etc. Each of them would have its own RF peaks and when combined would have a different RF profile due to the interaction between components.

    e.g. a camera module would have a RF shield opened to get in the lens, so they might leak RF differently than a closed module.

    e.g. Manufacturers have to certify their products for different power bricks that they might want to use due to cost or multi-source reasons..

    1. Hmm, anytime I see someone online mention EMC/EMI I wonder if we work for the same company. Are kind are a small crowd.

      Anyhow, I don’t think regular EMC would be much of a problem. For unintentional, they would just sell the modules individually and never have to certify as a system. For intentional, they would just get modular approval for the modules with intentional radiators. I think the real problem is CTIA. CTIA has specific verbiage that disallows modular approval.

      1. Rather than talk about acquiring approval, do you think there is actually potential for real EMI problems in this design? I some Google will ultimately be the one approving module… I’m certain they’d set up a test bed for all possible combinations. But that would only work up to a certain threshold of options just because of combinamatrics.

      2. In the server space, there are certain things you as a system integrator or OEM can do so that you don’t have to exhaustively test all the possible combinations with different “blades”. You can set a level that is certain dB below the criteria with some EMC “hand waving” math/magic to show that the system would not exceed the standard.

        I can see an issue when the case is part of the EMC/EMI containment and by the nature that the module might physical change the case. The individual modules might interact with each other or with the set of antennas that the mobile to operate in the different bands/802.1/RF gadgets. The module placement/contents could change the RF characteristics e.g. resonants, radiation pattern etc. Making it all work together is a few orders of magnitude more difficult than stuffing random I/O cards inside a PC and expect it to work. Remember Steve Job’s “you are holding it wrong” on the iphone reception nightmare?

        Now the problem is that very likely a 3rd parties can be selling the individual pieces themselves and they have varying expertises in EMC/EMI containment. This can become a whole mess ball of wax when vendors point fingers at each other.

        At the end of the day, if you can’t get FCC (or eqv) approval, you can’t sell/import the product *PERIOD*. There are probably some legal responsibilities/responsibilities attached. So the “leaving it to the end consumers” type of “solution” is not an option.

    2. typical, i wonder how this great product thats better for consumers and businesses could be curb stomped by __________ (replace with malicious entity here), just let government get involved and the device will be destroyed. Oh, I forgot how the government protects us like my those overbearing nutty moms from all the big bad, fear enticing things that could happen, -even though most regulating bodies and unions were developed from the mofia left overs after prohibition-, all of society will break down, chaos ensues, and anarchy reigns, how terrible is individualism, I guess Loki was right……All we need is good government right?…..Get a life, oh wait thats one of those things those pesky individuals have

    3. If the entire mobile phone industry, or even just Samsung or Google, seriously wanted this, the laws would change to accommodate them. Everyone has a mobile phone. If everyone wants one like this, they usually get it. Unless some powerful industry or finance wants to stop them.

      I’m sure some compromise is possible.

      1. I think at this point if the world’s mobile phone vendors got together with the networks, they could be ruling the world by tomorrow tea-time. And everybody wants smart mobile phones with good reception. I can’t think of any other industry that wouldn’t have to bend around them.

    1. If the frame, “endoskeleton” whatchacallit (aren’t most skeletons “endo”?) is of a standard size, then producing a standard sized box to cover and protect the whole thing won’t be hard. Need a couple of metal clips somewhere in there, it’s not rocket science.

      The special magnetic genius system I imagine will be the first part to go. Too unreliable and no real need when a catch or screw or something is so much cheaper and more simpler. Since the modules all have standard sizes, a standard clip system will fit right in there.

      While there *might* be a need for modular phones, and I really don’t think there is, it’s still not something you’d be upgrading and removing often. So the structure would need to be semi-permanent.

      The idea is an obvious development from what exists now, but not actually a useful one. A phone is already a set of modules connected over a serial bus, but that’s not a good reason to separate them physically. We had this whole discussion on here a while ago, nobody was enthusiastic.

  2. Meh. Who cares.

    Main problem of smartphone is not that it is not modular, but that it is closed cesspool with million security holes on top of built-in surveillance mechanisms.

    Modularity is far below that and plenty of other things.

  3. But, if Lattice finds big buyers for their small FPGAs that they are pushing into everything these days, it would be fine with me.

    As long as they use some of that $$$ for developing really “interesting” ones… ;o)

    1. Never mind battery. Which one is NSA’s surveiilance cube ? And do people get to choose between NSA/CIA/FBI ( perhaps styled with three stripes and some stars ‘n sh*t), Russian FSB, Chinese equivalent etc ?
      Or maybe localized version to cover the needs of smaller criminal groups ?

      1. Ahhh, the old Thinkpads. You could swap the CD drive for a floppy, or a giant second battery! And the battery was the exact same one that fit in the main battery slot, so cheap and much more flexible. And the IBM nipple! IBM really knew how to make laptops.

    2. Depends on the type of battery. My tablet has two batteries that are roughly the size of the larger sockets in that phone. It can software decode SD video for around 6 hours at respectable brightness and volume. It’s really the wifi and bluetooth systems that chew up power, be nice to have a small battery to drop in their place when I don’t need them (which is almost all the time since I keep a decent amount of video on a 16GB micro-SD card.

  4. That’s the great thing about modularity. Initially most all modules will be battery. In a few centuries you can replace them all with a 1×1 fusion power module, and use the free slots for some actual functionality.

    Or, right now you can have all the functionality you want for about 5 minutes a day.

    Modularity rocks.

  5. Chance that this will take off: 0
    Chance it will be supported for more than 6 weeks: 0
    Chance that you will be able to get any modules except the ones in the package: 0

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