Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Economic Crises: Challenge or Opportunity for 2009?

Everyday newspapers and TV bring us grim news on the world's economy. Universities worldwide find it more challenging than ever to secure funds for teaching and research. But there is some positive news from different countries and institutions around the world:

Ireland has announced funding worth more than €60 million in support of advanced scientific research. The mix of State and private sector money will back three large research centres based at University College Cork, Trinity College Dublin and NUI Galway. The money will go into “Csets”, Centres for Science, Engineering and Technology. These are large-scale investments designed specifically to encourage and support linkages between academic researchers and companies. Full story here.

Germany's Education and Research Minister Annette Schavan has come up with proposals to fund measures in higher education and research as a way to help stimulate the country's flagging economy. Investing around EUR15 billion (US$20 billion) in higher education infrastructure and providing tax incentives for small and medium-sized business to spend more on research could provide a vital boost to business, Schavan says. Full story here.

The U.S. Department of Defense will invest an additional $400 million over the next five years to support basic research at academic institutions. The goal is to fund research of up-and-coming scientific areas and to foster fundamental discoveries related to the department's challenging technical problems. Merit-based awards, based on peer review, will support projects begining in fiscal 2009 that will be funded for five years. Projects will be based on various academic areas, like physics, ocean science, chemistry and electrical engineering. Full story here.

Philippines Commission on Higher Education Chairman, Emmanuel Angeles, has vowed to strengthen research and development capability in state universities and colleges. The country's 111 state institutions have been divided into six clusters to maximise the utilisation of resources. "We are going to give full support to the research and development arm of tertiary institutions to upgrade the quality of higher education in the country. We will ask Congress to provide us additional funding to boost this program," Angeles said. Full story here.

The European Union last week unveiled an anti-recession plan which includes strong spending on research and development. European Commissioner for Science and Research, Janez Potočnik, said the European Economic Recovery Plan looked beyond the "short distance" of the immediate recession and took account of the commission's longer-term plan of building Europe's future prosperity on the basis of a knowledge economy. The recovery plan proposed three major public-private partnerships expected to be worth more than EUR7 billion (US$8.8 billion) and also called on member states to increase investment in R&D and education. Full story here.

The Korean government announced its selections for the multi-million-dollar World Class University program which aims to turn Korea’s universities into top-notch international institutions. A total of 52 projects from 18 universities have been chosen to receive grants, with major schools like Seoul National University accounting for most of the picks to receive funding. Among the winners, Seoul National won funding for seven projects. Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology and Postech got three each, and Korea, Sungkyunkwan and Yonsei universities each had two projects selected. A total of 825 billion won ($571 million), or 165 billion won a year, has been allocated through 2012. Full story here.

The Purdue University Board of Trustees has approved the use of $10.8 million from the Vincent P. Reilly Memorial Fund for the College of Engineering to finance portions of the college's, including global education, research initiatives and faculty development. The university will use $2.3 million to support a curriculum innovation project and cooperative work programs and internships. More than $4 million will be used to provide seed funding for new research initiatives and provide gap funding to support employment of research staff. Full story here.

Dr. Bernard Gordon, chairman of NeuroLogica Corporation, has made a $1.5 million gift The Citadel School of Engineering (The Military College of South Carolina). This generous contribution will support scholarship, program, equipment and classroom enhancements to advance the college’s highly ranked engineering program. This contribution will provide essential new equipment for the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department for the next five years as well as renovate an existing classroom in Grimsley Hall to create a first-class, technologically state-of-the-art conference and seminar room, to be named in the donor’s honor. Full story here.

University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC) has received a grant from the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) Higher Education Investment Fund. The grant money will support the development of courses in UMBC’s Engineering Management and Electrical Engineering master’s programs that will assist the needs of professionals relocating to Aberdeen and Fort Meade. UMBC will develop four new graduate courses in electrical engineering that are responsive to workforce needs. Full story here.

Despite the challenging federal funding environment, the University of Cincinnati secured $20 million more in research dollars in 2008 than in 2007, pulling in a record $353 million. Engineering increased research dollars to more than $30 million, a 64 percent increase beyond 2007's $18.6 million. Specific successes recognized by Degen, VP for research include the expansion to Children's Hospital and the completion of the Center for Academic and Research Excellence (CARE)/Crawley Building (one of the largest health-research complexes in the United States), the $28 million donated to UC for aerospace engineering, Choose Ohio First scholarships program, a three-year, $10 million partnership with Ethicon Endo Surgery and a $20 million anonymous gift to support UC's space exploration program. Full story here.

A gift of $10 million was given by Bill Lyles, his family and companies to better the education for students of College of Engineering, California State University Fresno. The university agreed to match Lyles’ donation. With the university’s added money, there will be a total of $20 million being put toward the college for the coming years. Full story here.

QUARC: Using An External Graphical User Interface (GUI)

Instead of using the opened Simulink diagram in external mode to interact with a QuaRC model, a Simulink-independent Graphical User Interface (GUI) can be used. Such a GUI runs on the QUARC host machine in place of the Simulink diagram.

The QUARC external interfaces (a.k.a. external APIs) are designed to allow the user to communicate with the generated QUARC real-time code and/or access hardware. In particular the QUARC communications API (available as C/C++ or .NET functions) can be used to establish communication channels, using one of the QUARC-supported protocols (e.g., UDP, TCP/IP, shared memory), between a user-written application, such as a front-end GUI, and a Simulink model(s) (i.e., QUARC real-time code).

In addition, QUARC currently supports two GUI-building environments: MATLAB and Altia. Both provide a powerful way to easily and rapidly develop fully-featured GUIs.

As an example, QuaRC already provides a fully-documented demonstration that includes a Simulink model and a MATLAB GUI created using the MATLB GUI Development Environment, i.e. GUIDE. This created GUI can be used to build, start, and stop the model. In addition it can also perform online parameter tuning and data plotting on the model. This is illustrated below where the sidebar is used to increase or decrease the sine wave frequency, which in turn is monitored and where any change can be seen immediately as the plot is updated in real-time. Online parameter tuning has just been carried out without even having to open the Simulink model! Although familiarity with the MATLAB interpretive environment makes this option attractive, GUIs created this way cannot be deployed independently of MATLAB.


Where standalone GUIs should be deployed on the end-user's system completely independent of MATLAB and Simulink, QUARC provides a flexible interface to Altia, as MATLAB and Simulink are not required when using Altia GUIs. Altia Design is a very powerful tool for creating professional-quality standalone GUIs for industrial applications. Just like the MATLAB GUIs, an Altia-created GUI allows the user to control, change parameters on-the-fly, and monitor signals in a QUARC real-time model. Moreover, the QUARC Plot library for Altia significantly augments the basic plotting components supplied with Altia, by providing scopes that can plot signals versus time. QUARC, of course, fully documents the process of creating and interacting with an Altia GUI, as well as specialized features such as starting and stopping (i.e., controlling) the real-time model, right from the graphical user interface itself! Industrial-application requirements can further be satisfied when this is also combined with QUARC's ability to generate production-optimized code and configurating it to run at boot on any of its supported targets (e.g., Windows, QNX x86, gumstix Verdex).

Friday, December 19, 2008

Quanser in Mexico: Conference on Decision and Control

I just came back from IEEE's Conference on Decision and Control (CDC) in Cancun, Mexico.Together with Quanser's Mexican distributor's representative, Jacqueline Vicarte from MultiON, we were demonstrating the latest and greatest teaching and research solutions in the Quanser booth.

Not surprisingly, the Active Suspension
attracted a lot of attention. Conference delegates a
sked a lot of great questions about this unique and cutting edge experimental platform for control labs. In particular, Dr. Juan Camino showed interest in using the Active Suspension along with QuaRC software for his research in time varying systems. I may post more on this in the future.

For a bit of fun in between CDC's workshops and technical sessions, we invited delegates to take our WiiMote Inverted Pendulum Challenge. Even CDC's General Chair, Dr. Abdallah couldn't resist the experiment that captivates many engineering students.At some point people were lining up to try their skills with this interactive twist on a classic control experiment. Everyone who gave it a swing was entered into a draw to win their very own iPod. And the winner of the WiiMote Inverted Pendulum Challenge is Daniel Quevedo from the University of Newcastle, Australia. Congratulations and Happy Holidays!

Dr. Chaouki Abdallah, Chair of CDC'08, testing Quanser's Active Suspension

Dr. Dennis Bernstein, Professor at the Department of Aerospace Engineering, University of Michigan and the Editor of IEEE Control Systems Magazine visits our booth at CDC'08 - with Dr. Jacob Apkarian, Founder and CTO of Quanser.

Setting up Quanser's booth at the CDC'08


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Shake Table II Software

The Shake Table II has been the most popular of the Quanser shake tables over the years and it has now been made easier to use. The Shake Table II Software is available now and shown in the image below. It allows users to command various signals to the seismic table such as sine wave and chirp as well as sample earthquakes, e.g. Northridge and Kobe. In addition, this program automatically initializes the amplifier and calibrates the table before running any signal. Engineers and scientist can therefore get their Shake Table II moving by double-clicking on an icon!

The GUI was designed using LabVIEW and the position controller running on the STII is implemented in QuaRC. To use this software, Shake Table II users need the LabVIEW Run-Time Engine, which is free to download, and QuaRC (no need for Matlab/Simulink).

In addition, this software can be used in a remote configuration. That is, the STII can be connected to a remote PC, such as the Quanser WEECS system, and controlled from a host PC/laptop through a cable or wireless network.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

New Year's Message

An Informal New Year's Message from Paul Gilbert, Quanser's CEO

CE mark on Quanser products

There are very strict regulations in Europe now regarding product safety. Certain equipment needs to be CE certified and comply with electromagnetic compatibility and safety standards. As we hear from our customers, it’s getting tougher and tougher for Universities to find authentic CE compliant suppliers.

Quanser's customers worldwide can have their peace of mind, knowing Quanser's equipment is now CE certified. We had all our power modules tested at their maximum load and met all safety requirements. The certification applies to the whole systems.

The whole project of CE certification took us about 3-4 months to finish. It involved a full review of all our experiments by Global Advantage International: for the electromagnetic portion the devices were put in an electromagnetic chamber where the impact on wiring and cabling was measured while running on maximum load, checking also for any effects on other electromagnetic devices and adequate shielding. For the safety testing, in the lab our devices were exposed to heating, zapping with lightning, you name it. With few minor recommendations that were promptly implemented, we proudly passed the tests. The stickers on your new equipment prove it!


Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The inside scoop on engineering equipment used by the world's top-ranked universities

Recently the new University Rankings for 2008 were released in U.S., Canada and worldwide. Although sometimes considered controversial, they still provide a good overview of the "top institutions". I was interested in finding out whether Quanser's equipment keeps up with demands of the top schools. Let's see...

The U.S. News and World Report brings the list of Best Engineering Schools in 2008:

  1. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - visit their Mechanical Engineering Department and you will find couple of Quanser's WEECS - research tool suitable for remote data collection and control applications;
  2. Stanford University - OK, this one is a bit tricky - since our database records don't go all the way back to Quanser's inception 19 years ago, I have to rely on Jacob's good memory that they may have Quanser's Shake Table in their Civil Engineering Department. Anybody from Stanford out there to confirm?
  3. University of California, Berkeley - the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences uses Quanser's Linear Family workstations with Double Inverted Pendulum, Seesaw and Linear Flexible Joint modules, as well as QuaRC, our real-time control software to teach undergraduate courses;
  4. Georgia Institute of Technology - in addition to Quanser's Q8 HIL boards and software solutions, students can see a 3DOF Helicopter in action at the Aerospace Engineering Department;
  5. University of Illinois - Urbana-Champaign - along with QuaRC's predecessor WinCon, the undergraduate students at the Department of Computer Sciences put theory into practice with a 3DOF Helicopter
There you have it. Insights into what the Top 5 Engineering Schools may have in their control labs.

Now, let's look at how we stand on our home turf: Canada's Maclean's Magazine has
just published it's 18th Annual Ranking Report. The top 5 Universities ranked in a Comprehensive category* are:

  1. Simon Fraser University - students at the School of Engineering Sciences can learn controls using Quanser Engineering Trainer - DC Motor Control, as well as the Linear Family experiments and the Mechatronics Control Kit;
  2. Victoria University - several departments use Quanser Engineering Trainers for undergraduate teaching, while researchers at the Department of Mechanical Engineering are using Quanser's Haptic Devices, like 5DOF Haptic Wand;
  3. University of Waterloo - has a wide selection of experiments for undergraduate teaching, including experiments from Linear and Rotary Motion Families as well as Coupled Tanks experiment, used by departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mathematics;
  4. University of Guelph - OK, no records here - Sales can you fix it, please;
  5. Memorial University - the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Sciences teaches robotics using Quanser's Open-Architecture 5DOF CRS Robot
*Comprehensive category includes institutions that have a significant amount of research activity and a wide range of programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels, including professional degrees

Looking at the World University rankings, some more Quanser customers show up. I have looked at two lists - The QS World University Rankings and the Academic Ranking of World Universities compiled by Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Institute of Higher Education, and found:
  • Imperial College, UK
  • Australian National University, Australia
  • ETH Zurich, Switzerland
  • University of Manchester, UK
  • Technical University of Munich, Germany
  • University of Melbourne, Australia
There are many more universities Quanser works with, who we value and respect for bringing up a new generation of engineers and for their innovative research. We will be referring to them throughout 2009 in our blog and eNEWS. Who would you personally nominate for the top 10 Universities and why?


Monday, December 8, 2008

Simulating a Real Car

It was a nice quiet day at work when suddenly a bang bang sound attracted my attention. Looking for the source of sound I found our newly developed Active Suspension System oscillating at a very high frequency.

This device is recently designed by our engineers to model a quarter-car used to simulate and analyze vertical motions of a real vehicle. By quarter-car I mean a modeled vehicle body mounted with a suspension on a modeled tire which is in contact with a road simulator. Any type of vertical displacements for the road can be simulated with this device. At the time, the road was commanded to be oscillating so fast that the modeled passengers were jumping on the air and bouncing back on the vehicle body just like a real vehicle getting onto undulations and bumps of the road in a fast speed. I was surprised that this system can simulate a real car at such high-frequency oscillations without being damaged. Moreover, what is super interesting for me is that this device is equipped with a fast-response motor in parallel to its suspension system to simulate what experts call Active Suspension System.

An Active Suspension System is referred to a programmable vehicle suspension mechanism that can continuously adapt the vehicle body and tire response to varying road conditions. This should be compared to a passive suspension system that always has the same predictable response to different road conditions - check this video to see the difference between the active and passive suspension systems in real cars. Active Suspension can be exploited to control the vehicle body motion and provide a comfortable ride for the passengers. It can also be used to control the tires compression and vehicle height and provide the driver with better maneuver capabilities.

Since it matches its nominal mathematical model over a wide frequency range our Active Suspension Plant along with QuaRC, our real-time operating system is a perfect experimental device for both educational and industrial research.”

- Amin-

Quanser's Mobile Robot Control Framework

Quanser’s Mobile Robot Control Framework (QMRCF) is undergoing extensive development. The software framework of QMRCF, based on QuaRC, includes three blocksets: Interface, Application, and Image processing. These blocksets allow a user to build a model-based controller in Simulink and to generate suitable code for Gumstix on Windows or QNX for preliminary testing. QMRCF has been tested on Qbot to implement teleoperation with force feedback and autonomous navigation with obstacle avoidance. The goal of teleoperation application is to remotely control a mobile robot with a joystick. The following video clip shows a teleoperation where an operator was driving Qbot using a joystick and the image feedback from Qbot was displayed on the host Windows PC.

An application of force-feedback in teleoperation is demonstrated in the following video clip. The force-feedback is associated with Qbot's bump sensors. The operator feels the reaction force on a COTS joystick while the bump sensor collides with any objects.

The navigation application defines a target point (p2) with respect to the initial position of the robot (p0) using an occupancy map (see Fig. 1). White pixels of the occupancy map indicate obstacles whereas black pixels indicate empty space.

Fig. 1

The navigation algorithm generates motion commands according to the current position of the robot and the target. The robot starts at p0 and tries to avoid dynamic obstacle at point p1 (see the following video clip) and finally, reaches the target position at p2. This method maintains a short-term memory of the previously bumped obstacle's position. The robot, first, moves opposite to the obstacle and then rotates and moves forward to avoid the obstacle. Fig. 1 shows robot’s trajectory from p0 to p2.

Further development on QMRCF will include mapping and multi-agent applications.


QUARC: Learning By Doing

If a picture is worth a thousand words then the newly augmented and improved QuaRC demos are worth volumes. The soon-to-be-released QUARC 1.2 contains a lot more hands-on demonstrations and example models to quickly and efficiently get new and experienced users started with QUARC's general operating principles, as well as provide a broad overview of QUARC's more advanced features. These demonstrations serve as preliminaries to a more in-depth investigation, on an as-needed basis, as they contain hyperlinks leading to the corresponding pages of the comprehensive QuaRC reference documentation (integrated with the MATLAB Contents pages). The QuaRC demos are also fully integrated with the MATLAB help browser (under the Demos tab) and provide the user with an effective way to test her or his software installation and configuration as well as the associated hardware.

For instance, the QUARC demonstration examples illustrate the following:
  • how to run one or several models on one of the QUARC targets, i.e., Windows, QNX x86, or gumstix Verdex (Linux ARM)

  • extensive (client/server) communication examples, either between two QUARC models or between one model and an user-developed application

  • various ways to carry-out data logging

  • how to interface to devices and hardware (e.g., HIL cards)

  • how to create GUIs interfacing to a QuaRC model

  • QUARC seamless integration with Simulink and its toolboxes (e.g., Model Referencing, Virtual Reality Toolbox)

  • running and interacting with a QUARC model using a MATLAB scipt

  • measuring a QUARC model's performance (e.g., timing, computation time)

  • dynamic reconfiguration module
As also reflected by most of Quanser's product line, the QUARC demonstrations are just another illustration of the learning-by-doing concept, that we at Quanser strongly believe in. There are of course many more example models installed with QUARC 1.2, so any QUARC user should really experience it for herself or himself.

Monday, December 1, 2008

New Robotics and Haptics Curriculum using the PHANTOM Omni Robot from SensAble

The PHANTOM Omni robot from SensAble is a 6 degree of freedom sensed and 3 degree of freedom actuated robot. It's three motors can actuate the end-effector to span the entire X, Y, Z region in its workspace. Position measurement along X, Y, and Z is done using digital encoders while measurement of rotations about these axes (roll, pitch and yaw) is done using potentiometers.

Not only the Omni is small but powerful for its size, it is also a safe to operate, easy to interface and cost effective robot. All these characteristics make the Omni a great tool for teaching or research in robotics and haptics.

We, at Quanser have developed an entire curriculum of robotics and haptics that uses the Omni robot, and the QuaRC software to go through concepts such as forward and inverse kinematic development, position control and force generation as well as advanced haptic applications. The curriculum consists of 10 individual lab experiments all containing pre-laboratory and in lab sections. The first couple of experiments are dedicated to developing forward and inverse kinematics which are basic elements of any robotic application. Later experiments use these developments to perform position control and point to point trajectory following with the robot. Jacobians are covered in a complete stand-alone lab session and the final three experiments in the curriculum become more advanced as they introduce haptic control and virtual reality concepts by having the students design haptic gravity wells, haptic walls and last but not least a haptic ping-pong game!

The fact that there is one complete and stand-alone experiment for every concept makes it easy for instructors to match their laboratory content with the exact material they are covering during the course. In addition the wide range of experiments along with their fairly distributed difficulty level make the curriculum perfect for both undergraduate and graduate level studies.

As the Omni is now one of the devices supported by QuaRC, interfacing to this device's sensing and actuating elements is as easy as connecting a fire-wire cable between your laptop/desktop computer and the Omni and throwing blocks in your Simulink model. The robot's easy interfacing, high safety rating and compact size make it so portable that instructors can even take it to perform in class demonstrations . Imagine having to do that with a CRS or Mitsubishi PA-10 robot with their not very compact accompanying hardware!

Stay tuned as videos of Omni in action are coming soon.