Friday, August 25, 2006

Chris Rogers – From Lego Bricks to Pico Crickets

I had a chance to catch up with Chris Rogers of Tufts University, who led the development of Robolab software which uses a simplified version of LabVIEW. He’s now working on with LEGO, National Instruments, Carnegie Mellon University, and Vernier Software on a high school version of Lego Mindstorms LabVIEW. It will be differentiated from the NXT software in that it won’t have drivers for the NXT blocks. It’ll be cross-platform as well. They are considering adding the NI controls and simulation package to it. “You can do a lot of cool control stuff with NXT on it,” said Chris.

Chris recently moved to Switzerland to work at ETH on sub-micron robots as part of his sabbatical. The robot propels sub-100 micron devices using magnetic fields. They make a sensor platform for measuring temperature and pressure. One application for it is to measure the inside the eye. Chris is working with Brad Nelson at ETH-Zürich on this project. Brad Nelson focuses his research on microrobotics, biomicrorobotics, and nanorobotics in a program entitled IRIS which marries robotics with the emerging field of MEMS. IRIS sets the goal to develop the tools and processes required to fabricate and assemble micron sized robots.

Playful Invention a Montreal-based company makes the Pico Crickets. It is designed for making artistic creations with lights, sound, music, and motion. Crickets were originally developed at MIT’s Media Lab. There’s a version for industrial applications here. Crossbow makes the Cricket Mote Research Platform which is a joint development between Crossbow and MIT. It is based on the MCS410CA.

Crickets arose from Mitchel Resnick’s research in RCX which is the technology underlying Lego’s Mindstorms. They are limited in capability but are very small in size. Chris is currently writing LabVIEW drivers for Crickets by using Robolab technology. Applications for crickets appeal more to non-standard robotics users. By integrating with Lego tools, the kids can make crafts which can react to their environment.

Chris is also working in the biotech field. His students use LabVIEW to track the motion of different genetic lines of flies by isolating genes for fly locomotion issues. The machine tracks 24 flies at a time.

If you would like to contact Chris directly, you can do so through his website.

Best Regards,
Hall T.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Electrical Power Monitoring – New Technologies and Applications

At NI Week 2006 this year, several sessions focused on the area of electrical power monitoring. The transmission grid that sends power across the country is now more than 50 years old. Needless to say it was built using analog technology and doesn’t make much use of the new digital technologies available today. The transmission grid which handles high voltages is susceptible to large swings in electrical loads and is therefore prone to disturbances. Beacon Power offers one solution to this problem with their flywheel technique which they use to rebalance the grid.

Dennis Erickson an IEEE Fellow came to a previous NI Week and showed how he used Virtual Instrumentation to monitor the transmission grid in the western half of the USA. He made significant use of the Gabor Spectrogram in his work.

EPRI, the Electrical Power Research Institute, is an independent, nonprofit center for public interest energy and environmental research, promotes the Intelligent Universal Transformer which replaces analog transformers with solid-state electronics which can help balance loads and provide better distribution capabilities to customers. In the area of emerging technology EPRI’s roadmap calls for smart materials and nanostructures among other things to enable its vision for the future of energy and its delivery.

Vista uses LabVIEW to capture power consumption from a facility say a building or an oil rig, store the results in a database and then applies analysis to the stored data to help optimize one’s consumption of power such as quantifying power usage during downtimes (weekends, holidays, etc). In many areas, customers have the choice of vendors in purchasing electrical power. With the knowledge gained from such a power monitoring system, a customer can choose to buy power from cheaper sources.

Elcom leverages the internet for power monitoring using virtual instrumentation tools. Their solution, PAQNet, consists of a set of nodes and bridges supported by LabVIEW for viewing power quality parameters over the internet. During their NI Week presentation they showed how they monitored power supply faults on a new high-speed train in their native country, Czech Republic. They setup a measurement system on the train to isolate the fault and compensate for it at the circuit level. This type of application seems to match those of the audience who were performing power monitoring applications on vehicles – navy ships, cars, buses, and airplanes. In particular, they were measuring the power load as the vehicle rolled through maneuvers under various conditions.

For those unfamiliar with Power Quality there’s a tutorial on the concepts, and the measurements. For those using virtual instrumentation there’s downloadable code as well. For a live application of a virtual instrumentation tool monitoring power check out this site. This represents the power consumption of the National Instruments facility, Mopac A building.

Best Regards,
Hall T.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Dean Kamen at NI Week 2006 – Innovation Requires Leadership

This week National Instruments hosted its twelfth annual NI Week event featuring Dean Kamen founder of DEKA, the inventing company of the Segway and many other inventions. As a Kilby and Heinz award winner he has over 400 patents to his credit. His inventions include the iBot which is a wheel chair with additional features such as a gyroscope and electronics for maintaining balance and the ability to raise the seated user to the eye-level of those standing. He’s also working on other inventions such as the compressed air system for lifting a person to a great height such as sending a SWAT person to the top of a building.

Dean Kamen founded the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) organization which is a non-profit that organizes robotics competitions for children 9-14 years old which impacts over 80,000 kids. The Lego Mindstorms team partners with FIRST by acting as the “little league” since it fosters science and engineering education at primary education children. He asked former president, Bill Clinton to bring the winners of the FIRST competition to the White House which he did. He showed a picture of President George W Bush toppling over the top of a Segway and made the comment about how the Segway works; you just have to turn it on.

He’s currently working on a water purifier system for villages that don’t have clean water. There are 1.1B people in the world without clean water or electricity. Dean Kamen’s invention is a box the size of a washing machine that can purify any kind of water put into it. The prototypes have been field tested and he’s now trying to reduce the cost of each production machine to the $1000/unit level.

Dean Kamen will be featured on the ‘Iconoclasts’ series to be aired on the Sundance Channel starting October 26. The series highlights those who have made a significant impact in their field.

Dean is a big fan of LabVIEW. It’s rumored that Dean Kamen has a pinball machine in his house that is driven by LabVIEW.

In his keynote address at NI Week 2006, he spoke on the process of innovation. He disclaimed his speech by saying he couldn’t instruct the audience on how to be innovative, but could only share his experiences. It’s the unexpected differences that work that make innovations interesting.

His talk was entitled: “Innovations: Rude Realizations and Somewhat Serious Suggestions”. He started with a picture of what first appeared to be a chariot, but it contained a series of gears that acted as an analog computer which keeps a pointer pointed south which is why it’s called a South Pointing Chariot. It was invented by Chinese several centuries ago which they used to guide their way through the Gobi desert. If both wheels turn at the same rate, then it would maintain its pointer which showed their way through the desert. They also had invented a crude form of a compass, but for some reason they didn’t use it. His conclusion which he called Rude Reality #1 is “It isn’t the technology that matters, it’s the way people solve problems that matter.”

He went on to quote TS Eliot, “Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow.” That was a great statement with plenty of visual references. He followed it by a slide that gave the cycle of innovation as follows:
1. Skeptical
2. Enthusiasm
3. Brass Band & Fireworks
4. Results Aren’t Visible
5. Existing business suffering
6. Is it worth it?
7. Start to see pay-offs
8. This is taking time
9. Maybe not a bad idea
10. It works.

So his first recommendation was “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” I believe he drew this from Winston Churchill. He showed a conventional development schedule which showed a clean set of steps from design to test to integrate. But the reality is quite different. He quoted Albert Einstein who said “If we knew what it was we were doing it would not be called research, would it?”

He shifted gears and made the statement “Invent as a last resort. “ It’s risky and full of failures and there is so much great technology already available that one should make use of it first and invent as a last resort. He defined Invention as “The art of concealing your sources” which he lifted from Pablo Picasso’s statement, “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” A real world example is the medical stent which was originally designed by helicopter rotor engineers who knew metallurgy in which they took concepts from their aerospace application and applied to a medical device.

My favorite part of the speech came when he said

“Projects require management,
Innovation requires leadership”

That may sound trite, people don’t like to give up things that sort of work in exchange for something that might work, but better.

He wrapped up the talk by promoting the FIRST program for which he actively seeks mentors and volunteers. Their annual competition has grown to such a size that each year they take over an Olympic stadium --- the Georgia dome for their competitions. If you want to volunteer check out this site.

Best regards,
Hall T.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Programming Multi-Core Processors –Virtual Instrumentation offers Solutions

With the announcement last year from Intel that it was changing direction from faster single core processors to multicore processors, the industry shifted gears and continues to advance on the multicore front. Intel now has 17 multicore processor designs on the board. This year at the Design Automation Conference (DAC) held in San Francisco, the talk on the floor was how to program a multicore processor. Languages such as C/C++ don’t handle multicore applications very well. The challenge is considered a long term evidence by universities teaching classes on the subject.

For those who don’t know what multicore processing is, Wikipedia has a nice description here. Multi-core processors bring performance benefits with new entrants such as IBM/Sony’s Cell processor which I posted about last year here.

The key to multi-core programming is managing multiple threads to maximize the performance of the cores. While this may sound simple, actual implementation is more difficult.

Intel offers tools for multi-core processing. Sun, Microsoft, and Red Hat Linux offer upgraded operating systems specifically designed to support multi-core operations but the challenges in programming multi-cores remain.

Since languages such as C don’t fit well into the world of multi-core processing. Codeplay offers specialized versions of C which can help a user parallelize a C program. The key to writing good multi-core programming is getting the timing right.

Another challenge arises when one considers there are symmetric multi-cores and asymmetric multi-cores. In symmetric applications, one instantiation of the operating system can provide resources to each core. In asymmetric multi-cores, each core could have a separate instantiation requiring separate resources.

Virtual Instrumentation, in particular LabVIEW brings a number of benefits to multi-core programming. LabVIEW provides programming resources for multithreading applications. This whitepaper gives more details. In perusing the LAVA forum there are a number of entries related to multi-core programming. Here’s one entry which shows how to use LabVIEW on a dual core PC and take advantage of both cores. You simply setup two loops and point one at each core. LabVIEW uses multiple OS threads to distribute the work among the two cores. Another one is TenAsys who implemented a LabVIEW application on a dual core system by placing the OS tasks in one core and the interfacing in another to improve real-time performance.

Next week is NI Week 2006 in Austin where Dean Kamen will give the keynote speech. I look forward to meeting with many from virtual instrumentation community there.

Best regards,
Hall T.