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Avoiding unit-related failure

Type-safe Unit Expressions for Java (and you)

Scott McKinney
java
© Shutterstock / Dotted Yeti

Unit type-safety, or lack thereof, can have real consequences, sometimes disastrous ones. This article briefly demonstrates how the Manifold framework’s extension and science libraries can be applied toward a general solution using type-safe units and quantities.

No other example of unit related failure quite measures up to the 1999 incident involving NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter (MCO). Those familiar with the story know the spacecraft missed its big red target by miles… er kilometers or something related to the metric system. Indeed, the inquiry led by the MCO Mishap Investigation Board concluded the orbiter missed its mark due to:

The output from the SM_FORCES application code as required by a MSOP Project Software Interface Specification (SIS) was to be in metric units of Newtonseconds (N-s). Instead, the data was reported in English units of pound-seconds (lbf-s).

Whoops! The report also reveals several missed opportunities that could have otherwise prevented the accident. Ultimately, gaps in communication were viewed as central to the point of failure. But one must wonder, if the problem manifested in software, why wasn’t more attention placed there?

SEE ALSO: Java 15: Records proposed for a second preview & EdDSA in JDK 15?

To rehash, one system provided quantities of linear momentum as pound-seconds (lbf s) for another system expecting newton-seconds (N s). The receiving system’s API, consisting of a data format, failed to model the quantities type-safely. Instead, the API accepted raw numeric data. A simplified illustration:


/**
* Position the orbiter for optimal trajectory. Don't mess this up!
*
* @param momentum Amount of thrust to apply. And uh, one more thing, use SI units here.
*/
public void performManeuver(double momentum) {
// fire thrusters and stuff
}

Perhaps this is the real tragedy? Sure, the documentation specifies SI units, but the documentation doesn’t compile code. Javac will make darn sure callers pass a double, but it knows not of linear momentum or SI units, unless you tell it.

As a general rule, if the compiler can enforce what otherwise must be documented, favor the compiler! So let’s replace the double with a type-safe abstraction for momentum.


/**
* Position the orbiter for optimal trajectory. You *can't* mess this up!
*
* @param momentum Amount of thrust to use.
*/
public void performManeuver(Momentum momentum) {
// fire thrusters and stuff
}

The Momentum type is taken from the Manifold framework’s Science library, which models physical dimensions as a class library of type-safe units and quantities. A quantity of Momentum is expressed in terms of MomentumUnit. Internally, the dimension classes maintain quantities as SI units, thus all physical calculations are inherently unit-independent. As a result, we can now call performManeuver() with the unit of our choosing:


Momentum momentum = new Momentum(50, MomentumUnit.POUND_SECONDS);
orbiter.performManeuver(momentum);
// or
Momentum momentum = new Momentum(222.41108075988, MomentumUnit.NEWTON_SECONDS);
orbiter.performManeuver(momentum);

Although they are defined with different units, both values are identical quantities of Momentum. Big win! But how do we work with Momentum? One advantage of using a unitless type like double is simplicity. Manifold maintains and extends this level of convenience with type-safe unit expressions, which allow us to rewrite the code above like this:


Momentum momentum = 50 lbf s;
orbiter.performManeuver(momentum);
// or
Momentum momentum = 222.41108075988 N s;
orbiter.performManeuver(momentum);

Additionally, with the aid of Manifold-provided operator overloading we have the utility of type-safe arithmetic across the entire spectrum of physical quantities. For instance, the science library defines the product of Force and Time as a quantity of Momentum.


Momentum momentum = 5 lbf * 10 s;
// or
Momentum momentum = 22.241108075988 N * 10 s;

Equality and relational expressions are also powerfully concise:


out.println(50 lbf s > 222 N s); // true

Eventually, physical calculations lead to interfacing with the outside world. Whether that’s displaying results on a screen or interacting with a spacecraft, the software delivers specific values. Manifold’s physical dimension classes provide a common interface for unit conversions and data access. You can also use string interpolation to easily format output:


Momentum momentum = 222.41108075988 N s;
Time duration = 10 s;
Force force = momentum / duration;
out.println("$duration burn at $force");
out.println("$duration burn at ${force.to(lbf)}");

Note, the Manifold Plugin for IntelliJ IDEA provides comprehensive support for all of the framework’s features. It is free for use with IDEA Community Edition.

SEE ALSO: C passes Java and becomes number 1 programming language

There’s much more to Manifold’s treatment of physical quantities. The intent here is to point out the significance of type-safety with respect to API usage of physical quantities and how to apply Manifold toward making improvements. Of course, you can use the framework anywhere in your code where type-safe quantities could improve your development experience. Hopefully, you’ll never have to experience a unit failure of the Mars Climate Orbiter caliber!

The sample code from this article is available on github.

Visit Manifold to learn more.

Author
Scott McKinney
Scott McKinney is the founder and principle engineer at Manifold Systems. Previously, he was a staff engineer at Guidewire where he designed and created Gosu. He currently pounds code by the truckload while listening to way too much retro synthwave.

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