Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Quanser's Journey to Engineer Unmanned Vehicle Systems for Academic Advancement

Recently, Quanser introduced a completely new platform for teaching and research - the Unmanned Vehicle Systems (UVS Lab). UVS Lab is the result of more than five years of Quanser’s internal research and development efforts. To learn more about their journey, we talked with the two people driving the innovation - Dr. Jacob Apkarian, Quanser’s Founder and CTO and Cameron Fulford, Systems and Control Engineering Manager.

Jacob: Ever since I was a kid, I wanted to fly my own devices - I guess that's where it all has roots. The unmanned research at Quanser started about five years ago when we began thinking how we can use our Quarc control system design software (or WinCon at the time) to actually fly things. Quarc's real-time capabilities allowed us to collect data online, tune parameters online, so if you have any flight dynamics issues that you want to do online, you can do it right away with this rapid prototyping software. Alas, the technology to do this was not there - so we developed it! Now I feel like an ace when flying these things - something I could never do without Quarc.

Cameron: For years Quanser offered the 2 DOF Helicopter, 3 DOF Helicopter and a 3 DOF Hover, which are not flying vehicles, but experiments simulating flying vehicles. So moving towards vehicles actually flying seemed like a natural progression.

Jacob: As engineers at Quanser started to look into the area, we realized there are a lot of people doing research in unmanned autonomous vehicles. We approached the Defense Research and Development Canada (DRDC), where we found Dr. Camille-Alain Rabbath, a scientist who supported this kind of research. We started to collaborate with DRDC on development of the vehicle control systems, but we still did not have any vehicles. We came up with the ALTAV - an almost lighter than air blimp, because we thought it would be easier to fly than something that is heavier than air.

Cameron: The first version of ALTAV had a shape of a round beach ball, which we eventually replaced with 11 and 13' long, more traditional blimp-looking shape. These ALTAV versions were all helium-filled blimp balloons with 4 actuated motors, so you could actually tilt the motors and get a vectored thrust, controlling the direction of the thrust of each motor. That was a novelty behind the design of our ALTAV vehicle.

One of Quanser's ALTAV models with its design and engineering team

Jacob: On our journey we learnt that a vehicle with four motors is a good design. As we continued our research, we discovered a lot about the IMU needed, and the sensors needed to fly these things properly. So as the time went by, we started developing the ultimate IMU board, which we now call the HiQ. From there our software engineers enhanced Quarc to generate code for the HiQ and control any vehicle. However as we started flying the ALTAV outside, we quickly realized the challenges: one of them being legal issues, because you have to get all the licenses and permits to fly outside. The other challenge was the weather.

Cameron: The ALTAV was so large that it was susceptible to winds. If there was any matter of wind, it could really affect the performance of that vehicle, so it was difficult to fly outdoors, but at the same time, was too big to fly indoors. A lot of people we are talking to ultimately want to do test flights outdoors, but they can begin their research indoors. We needed something smaller that can fly inside and is safe. Indoor lab space is available all year round, the conditions are the same, so it’s much better especially at the initial stages of research.

Jacob: People are doing research in control systems and the control systems can be implemented indoors and outdoors, it does not matter. That is why we started developing what we call the indoor Unmanned Vehicle Systems Lab.

Cameron: We wanted to create a framework for controlling multiple vehicles, the mission development framework. That’s how the Quanser vehicle abstraction layer (VAL) started – a mechanism for developing multi-agent missions and doing high-level vehicle control. We also investigated and developed a number of different vehicles, including quadrotors, Zagi fixed wing, and these were all flown outdoors. Basically due to the reasons Jacob mentioned - environmental factors and the legal restrictions, we started developing the UVS Lab, which is the concept for indoor lab, for doing unmanned vehicle research. Each vehicle is pretty individual in terms how it works. At the higher level, controlling the mission is something that we learned to do through all of the vehicles we investigated and created. Now we can apply what we learned and developed to the newest vehicles that are being released for use by academics.

The newest vehicles we developed were the Qbot, an unmanned ground vehicle and the Qball-X4, a quadrotor UAV designed for flying indoors. The flexibility of these vehicles and the lab setup provide researchers a lot of potential to develop complex missions with even more vehicles, without compromising on safety. With an aerial vehicle like the Qball-X4 there is a higher likelihood of collisions, either with another vehicle or a wall, safety was a big concern. So we decided to build a vehicle that has a built-in cage to protect it and protect the users. We added OptiTrack support for localization purposes, since you no longer have the GPS. As part of our development, the HiQ Aero Data Acquisition card also had to go through many changes. We now have a brand new HiQ that was re-designed from the ground up for these new vehicles. In fact, the Qball-X4 has a completely new HiQ with the on-board Gumstix computer that runs Quarc, Quanser's real-time control software. Throughout all these vehicles the Gumstix has been the main computer on-board. As the Gumstix technology continues to improve, Quanser's unmanned vehicles will feature more powerful on-board computers. While we accomplished a lot in the last five years, Quanser's journey to give the academics a reliable and robust UVS platform has only began.

Quanser's new Qball-X4 quadrotor

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Learning by Teaching

While in elementary school, I remember a teacher once wrote on the board:
You learn 8% of what you read,
you learn 12% of what you hear,
you learn 25% of what you write,
you learn 90% of what you teach.

The concept of learning by teaching has stuck with me throughout the years and has been re-inforced through my tutoring in high-school, joining study groups as an undergrad student, and later developing controls curriculum at Quanser. But how true the words of my teacher are I realized only as a Teaching Assistant of a controls lab at Queen's University. As a part of my Masters degree, I spent a term TA-ing a 4th year Robotics course at Queen's. The lab component of the course was based on Quanser's rotary family of experiments, which - incidentally - I had spent my first year at Quanser developing.

Even after specializing in controls during undergrad, I always say that it wasn't until my time at Quanser that I really learnt controls. It was while working on controls curriculum to pedagogically guide students through a control system experiment where I really needed to understand and learn control theory - once again, it was learning by teaching. And it was only years later, being a teaching Assistant at Queen's and actually delivering that same curriculum to the 4th year students, when my expertise truly took hold. it was also during this brief stint as a Teaching Assistant that I could benefit from the feedback provided by students - another form of learning by teaching, and bring back their comments to improve Quanser controls curriculum in general.

What I noticed during the Robotics course was that the students would benefit from more time spent playing with the experiment and trial-error type of work. However, there might not be enough time during the lab for that. What we can do instead is give that time to the students during pre-lab. The new version of Quanser's real-time control software QuaRC 2.0 has powerful visualization tools - why not to use the power of QuaRC and add a pre-lab component that would visually and dynamically represent Quanser's experiment. That way, students would get to the lab having a context and feel of the experiment and learn much more during the actual lab.

It's exciting to see how the principle of learning by teaching works for engineering team at Quanser. In our dynamic and multi-disciplinary group, every engineer brings certain expertise - to "teach" other team members, one must "learn" and understand his or her part. Working on multi-faceted projects, developing new controls experiments and refining existing labs and curriculae, we continue to improve the quality of our offerings as we are always learning by teaching.

Monday, November 16, 2009

QUARC: The QuaRC Tetralogy

In the past few months we talked about the new features and strengths of QUARC 2.0, the new version of our popular control systems design and development software. The diagram below succinctly captures QUARC’s characteristic strengths - and some of Quanser’s domains of expertise - and illustrates QUARC’s four pillars.

Namely, the QUARC tetralogy consists of:

  1. A visual programming tool, like Simulink. As a Rapid Control Prototyping (RCP) tool that provides full open-architecture, this is what QUARC fully integrates with and generates real-time code from. This visual programming tool is used as a flexible development platform and to maximize user friendliness.

  2. Multiple target Operating Systems (OS). The target OS, be it either a pseudo- or hard-real-time operating system is where the QUARC-generated code is run. Currently, QUARC models run under 32-bit Windows, Linux, QNX, and INtime (to be available soon).

    QuaRC-generated models are optimized for robust and real-time (i.e., deterministic) performance, by strictly adhering, for example, to a true multi-rate and multi-threaded design, or by taking advantage of multi-core CPUs (CPU affinity support).

  3. Hardware interfacing. QUARC allows interfacing to actual hardware in a real-time fashion by utilizing the Quanser’s HIL API and by supporting a growing number of third-party devices.

    The Quanser’s Hardware-In-the-Loop (HIL) API is a generic, card-independent, and extensible API. It is detailed in our QuaRC: Hardware-In-the-Loop (HIL) Card Support and HIL API post.

    As a complement to the HIL API, QuaRC also supports a wide variety of third-party-vendor sensors, devices, and robots, as described in our QuaRC: Third-Party Device Support article.

  4. Communication capabilities. QUARC implements a very flexible and powerful communication framework that allows for carrying out standard communication not only between QuaRC models, but also and especially between a QuaRC model and an external third-party application.

    The cornerstone of QuaRC’s communication capabilities is the Quanser’s Stream API, which is a generic, protocol-independent, and extensible communication API. Please refer to the QuaRC: Communication Capabilities and Framework article for a more detailed description.

Quanser Qball-X4 with iPod controller!

Our new Qball-X4 UAV has been flying autonomously or using a standard 4-channel joystick for some time now. We decided we wanted to fly the Qball-X4 with something a little less conventional: an iPod. Using QUARC, Quanser's real-time control software, and our stream communications API, we are able to interface an iPod and read the accelerometer measurements and user inputs directly into a Simulink model. Our Qball-X4 flight stabilization controller is also implemented in MATLAB Simulink using QuaRC, which allows the generated code to be downloaded and executed on-board the vehicle. Once we added the iPod inputs to our Qball-X4 model, it was simple to compile the controller and start flying.

The video below shows a test flight of the Qball-X4 we performed recently using the iPod's accelerometers to control the roll and pitch commands to the vehicle with one pilot, while the second pilot controls the throttle and the yaw. We are working on an iPod controller that only requires one pilot to fly the vehicle, but this test was a very interesting way to combine a new human interface with an existing vehicle controller.

Note: Qball-X4 is slated for release in spring 2010.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Happy Halloween - with a bit of engineering

We are engineers - even when it comes to pumpkins. Seventeen pieces of art, including a virtual one, were entered into Quanser 2009 Pumpkin Challenge by our engineers.
Happy Halloween from Quanser!

1st prize for Julio's Corona Extra

2nd prize - Herve's masterpiece

3rd prize - Amin's MacQuanser

3rd prize - Max is haunted by pirates

3rd prize - Lisa can always see the bright side

Special Marketing award for Patrick's Q

And the Engineering Award for Derek

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

QUARC: Third-Party Device Support

In addition to being able to access hardware via Hardware-In-the-Loop (HIL) cards by using the familiar Simulink environment, as described in previous blog post, QuaRC also allows users to interact directly with third-party devices in a real-time fashion.

QUARC supports a wide variety of third-party-vendor devices, which can be categorized essentially into 3 main device families:

  1. Sensors & Human Interface Devices (HIDs)

  2. Haptic input devices

  3. Robot arms

This support goes above and beyond Quanser’s very own devices as well as the standard PC peripherals, like keyboards, mice, game controllers (i.e., joysticks), or force-feedback game controllers, that QUAC also supports.

Also the nature of the interface used by any one of the QUARC-supported devices to connect to a QUARC target system (e.g., Windows 32-bit PC, QNX PC, Linux Gumstix Verdex) is almost as diverse as the types of devices supported. The interfaces used include, but are not limited to, USB, FireWire (IEEE 1394), serial (e.g., RS-232, TTL, SPI), PS2, and network (e.g., TCP/IP, UDP, ARCNET, bluetooth).

We are often asked what the actual devices currently supported by QUARC exactly are. Even though this list is continuously growing, the following summarizes the third-party devices to which Simulink-compatible blocks are offered by our upcoming version of QUARC, QUARC 2.0.

However, a device supported under one QuaRC target (e.g., 32-bit Windows) might not be supported for another QuaRC target (e.g., Linux), due to, for example, connectivity or third-party driver compatibility issues. Any QuaRC target restriction is specified in-between square brackets below.

QUARC 2.0 supports the following sensors and Human Interface Devices (HIDs).

QUARC 2.0 also supports the following haptic (i.e., position sensing and force feedback) input devices.

QUARC supports the following multiple-DOF serial robot arms and robotic devices as well. By doing so, QUARC makes these robots Open Architecture (OA), which is to say that their Cartesian or joint position or rate commands can be individually set, as configured in your Simulink diagram, together with any customized advanced robotic control schemes.

QUARC is designed to meet the continually-increasing demand for interactive systems. For example, the power of QUARC is really harnessed when users easily couple one of its supported haptic input devices to one of its supported robot arms and quickly setup, in a Simulink diagram, a fully customizable teleoperation system.

Please stay tuned for announcements on additional third-party device support as well as for added QUARC support for Quanser’s very own new and exciting products, like the novel Quanser USB-Qbit and QPID boards.

Monday, October 5, 2009

A Week at the MICCAI Conference

I was in the UK last week where the Imperial College of London was hosting the 12th International Conference on Medical Image Computing and Computer Assisted Intervention (MICCAI 2009). This is where clinicians, computer scientists , bioscientists, , engineers, and other researchers gather every year to share their innovations in the field of medical robotics, medical image processing and computer assisted intervention. Beside the major focus on advances of image acquisition and computation at the MICCAI conference, robotic assisted surgery has attracted huge attention in the recent years. Robots can provide the surgeons with unprecedented precision, dexterity, and minimally invasive techniques. They can increase the quality of the operation while reducing the time of the operation and patient recovery. Image information from a wide range of sensor data can be integrated into such systems to equip the surgeon with enhanced vision capabilities and feedback system.

From Left : Professor Guang-Zhong Yang (Imperial College), Amin Abdossalami (Quanser), Keith Blanchet(Quanser).

Quanser’s great expertise in haptics and teleoperation has resulted in the design and development of such well-known general purpose robotic manipulators as High Definition Haptic Device HD2 and Haptic Wand. At MICCAI 2009, Quanser was invited to present its latest haptic devices, the HD2. This system has a high accuracy position measurement and a relatively large workspace. It can provide the operator with precise force feedbacks ranging from the reaction force of a brain tissue to the stiffness of a tooth. In addition, the device end-effector can be easily modified for a versatile range of applications. All these characteristics make the HD2 capable enough to be used for such applications as virtual training simulators, collaborative haptics, rehabilitation, or it can even act as either a master or slave robot in a telesurgery setup. Using our real-time software QuaRC we designed some surgical simulations to demonstrate the capabilities of our HD2 and its programming software. Quanser’s HD2 along with its real-time software QuaRC and our other booth material attracted a lot of interest from both clinicians and engineers during the MICCAI conference.

Quanser Booth in MICCAI 2009

Below, our blog followers can read about some presentations from other companies participating in the exhibition.

One of the FDA approved systems which is extensively being used for robotic surgery is the da Vinci made by Intuitive. In the following video a second generation of the da Vinci systems with three surgical arms is presented.

SenseGraphics was another exhibiting company in the MICCAI. Below, you can see their presentation of their 3D display setup.

In the following video Dr. Rodriguez from Imperial College is presenting part of their fascinating research in the field of developing new brain probes.

In the following video you can see some interesting 3D spatial tracking systems developed by NDI.

And last but not least are some cool products from INITION in the field of 3D displays.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Budapest Under Control

In August 2009, Hungarian capitol Budapest got under control as academics and researchers from around the globe gathered for the 10th European Control Conference (ECC 2009). Presentation topics spanned from high theory of “Approximate Zeros of Polynomial Matrices and Linear Systems” to the latest developments in unmanned systems, like “Coordination Strategies between UAV and AUVs for Ocean Exploration”.

From the start to the end of the conference we were kept very busy with many inquires from ECC attendees representing all disciplines of controls. Luckily, with the help of our distributor in UK and Germany, Adept Scientific we were able to answer them all. The Active Suspension created a lot of hands-on interest and questions while our videos attracted interest from all faucets of control engineering from haptics to unmanned systems. Actually, there was a great interest in our unmanned aerial and ground vehicles technology as demonstrated in the videos - a number of ECC attendees are heavily involved in this area of education and research.

We also re-connected with some attendees that are already using Quanser equipment in their Universities and post grads that had used Quanser equipment in the past and recognized this when we met. They were eager to learn more of what Quanser had to offer as they were very satisfied with our products. We had some very flattering conversations to say the least and the presentation of our new products really created a lot of excitement.

If you are a “Controls” person then ECC is definitely the conference to attend. The conference takes place every 2 years and Quanser will be there in 2011 for sure.

- Stephen Frank -

Friday, September 25, 2009

“I’m thinking about writing a grant proposal.”

This is the second of six posts on the different stages of grant proposals.

You’re at a point in your research where you’re envisioning an experiment that will be able to prove your theory or at least give you a much better understanding of certain principles. The setback – the experiment costs much more than the funds you have available.

So, you’re thinking about writing a grant proposal. Somewhere out there, there are the means to buy the equipment or resources you need. At this stage, key questions to be asking are:

What’s the goal of your project or research?
Being able to clearly express a well-defined goal for your research won’t just keep you focused, it will also help in getting you funds. In grant applications, the better you can express this, the better your chances of winning the grant.

How much interest is there in your research area?
Like celebrities, there are research topics that can suddenly become very popular. Of course, you probably wouldn’t be researching something that wasn’t already of interest to others. If your research is “on fire” (as in, trending upward in popularity in journals… not as in “pyrology”), then keep this in mind as fuel for your grant application.

Who could you collaborate with?
Givers of grants love that their money can be used by and give benefit to many. Instead of competing for funding with others, is there anyone who’s doing similar research with whom you can share the equipment and collaborate?

How much funding will you need?
That dreamboat equipment – how much is it going to cost? Collect ballpark prices from potential vendors or prepare a cost estimate if you have to develop the equipment in house.

What are possible funding sources?

Beyond the department, faculty, and NSF, what other associations might have interest in funding your research? Are there any grants given by local or state/provincial governments? What companies might have interest in sponsoring your research?

Who’s won funding for similar projects?
If someone’s succeeded where you want to succeed – contact them. Be open about what you’re doing and prepare questions in advance. It’s flattering to be asked for advice.

OK, you’ve asked yourself these questions and identified a grant. Now, it’s time to commit to writing something.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

NI SoftMotion Module

National Instruments and SolidWorks have collaborated to develop integrated tools that make mechatronics oriented design and seamless deployment to hardware easy. The seamless integration of the LabVIEW 2009 NI SoftMotion Module and SolidWorks software delivers a design environment that is ideal for virtual prototyping.

I had the opportunity to participate in a SoftMotion workshop at NI Week 2009 last August. Using the motion control functions in SoftMotion, it was easy to see how the SolidWorks model would react to different trajectories. Being able to examine the behavior of the virtual prototype of a product has tremendous benefits.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Visualize Your Simulation

Watch the short video in which Derek Wight, Quanser's Engineering Manager for Electronics describes how you can turn your simulation into a 3D graphical scene using powerful OpenGL-based visualization blocks of Quanser's real-time control software QuaRC:

Read more about the visualization tools in QUARC from Derek here

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Engineering Education in Asia

One of the exciting parts of my job is the opportunity to travel the world to discover the ever changing trends in the education market. Although many will say, and I agree, it is a small world, there are clear differences in the way governments view education as a priority, how industry interacts with academia and the level of enthusiasm of the population towards the variety of education avenues offered to them.

We have recently established a new position at Quanser which focuses on regional channel sales. In particular, for this blog posting, I will focus on our increased interactions and focus on the Asian market. For the sake of clarity, at Quanser, we define the Asian market as consisting of ASEAN countries as far south as Philippines, China, Korea and Japan.

Long vs short term needs
The Asian educational sector demonstrates a wide variety of approaches to how best to train engineers. This is due to the differences in the needs and nature of industry of the various countries. In Japan and to some extent Korea, where the industrial sector is quite mature and where technology and innovation are culturally ingrained, we have found a higher level of interest in hands–on education of the theoretical aspects of mechatronic systems towards the training of highly creative and innovative engineers. While in countries like China and many of the ASEAN countries, the emphasis is still on meeting the short term human resources needs of local industries through teaching of industrially used “closed” solutions such as PLCs and less time on preparing the grounds for innovators who would find new and better ways of using technology.

Whilst the Chinese focus on short term, less creative engineers is logical when considering the incredible growth of the Chinese economy and the urgent need for immediately productive engineers, in the long term, the global competitive landscape (as said before, it is a small world) will incite countries like China to invest more and more in innovation and the training of creative minds. That is not to say that China does not create creative minds even now. It is simply not a focus of the educational system at this point. The short term needs are being fulfilled now with over 200,000 engineers graduating every year, and it is expected to see China invest heavily in creating more creative minds in the near future. This process is already underway through upcoming government funding opportunities forecasted to be focused on innovation in academia.

ASEAN region
In ASEAN, Malaysia and Singapore educational systems seem to play a balancing act between pure innovation (to distinguish themselves and avoid competition from low labor cost Chinese firms) and the obvious need for high productivity to follow the Chinese demand in those sectors requiring volume. A country’s need for high productivity quickly tends to force the educational sector to pump out bachelor degrees with only basics covered. The educational systems in other ASEAN countries such as Thailand, VietNam, Indonesia, Philippines etc… strictly tend to the needs of the local industry. This obviously has a tendency to have universities concentrate their funding on filling the immediate needs of their main funding source which often comes from the regional industrial sector. Innovation in such cases is dependant on the level of R&D performed locally which is quite rare in the countries listed which constitute mostly of low cost production facilities for multi-nationals.

Japan and South Korea
In Japan, where innovation had been a national focus for years, and to some extent South Korea, past enthusiasm for engineering seemed to disappear for several years. Many theories exist on why this is so, but one thing is certain, young people simply do not see the attractiveness in engineering that used to be there. Recently, governments and universities have been attracting students to engineering by getting them interested and engaged with technology at the high school level. This is done through low level and simple hands-on application of mechatronic basics through devices like the Lego Mind storm or other low level robotic devices. However, as experience has shown us in North-America, once students enter the university with the promise of learning through the application of theory, it is important to supply the platforms for them to do so. Often, the simple devices he used in high-school will not provide the flexibility and complexity for them to learn the more advanced concepts of mechatronics and controls needed to become innovators. Attracting students is one thing, keeping them in engineering to the graduate levels is another, which is still a challenge in this region.

How Quanser approaches this variety
By having a wide variety of products (over 70) and through Quanser's well known philosophy of modular and open architecture designs, Quanser customers are able to begin with basic SISO devices to teach fundamental dynamics and control theory but then add modules to begin challenging experiments and trigger creativity in students in more advanced courses. This has multiple benefits: students always learn new theory and their applications from a previously assimilated platform making it easier to absorb and imagine new applications and costs can be spread over multiple labs, courses and even departments. Another important benefit is the obvious cost savings by being able to use common peripherals for multiple experiments. Lastly, for situations where budgets come in slowly, modules can be purchased and added gradually over time while still allowing students the benefits of hands-on learning on basic systems.

Quanser Handpicked to Join the Top Thinkers in Medical Imagining and Computer Assisted Surgery

Quanser was hand-picked to be among the world’s top scientists, engineers and clinicians from various disciplines of medical imaging and computer assisted surgery to participate in MICCAI 2009, the 12th International Conference on Medical Image Computing and Computer Assisted Intervention. One interesting discussion will explore how to foster effective collaboration between engineering and clinical medicine. We will try to cover this in a future blog post. Subscribe and get an automatic notification when we update the blog.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Quanser Visualization Blocks

In case anyone is keeping track, my main job at Quanser is working on electronics design, but I've been programming real-time computer graphics for years as a hobby. I suppose that hobby has now been elevated to profession as we prepare our new Visualization blocks for our next major release of QuaRC.

Our visualization blocks are made up of just two blocks, but they are both very powerful. You can get started right away by building a simple scene with the included graphical "primitives" - cubes, cylinders, cones, spheres, etc., which you can position and scale to schematically represent your simulation. Alternatively, you can use either the free modelling package Blender or Autodesk's commercial package 3ds Max (a 30 day trial is available here, Autodesk also offers a favorable academic pricing) with our included plugins to produce X3D mesh files that can be precise models of your system.

After you have your meshes loaded, you can wrap them with textures using one of many supported graphical formats. Next you can create relational hierarchies with selective inheritance of various properties. For instance you can create a robot arm and drive the position and orientation of every body in the system, or you can link them together to drive it by specifying the joint angles in either a relative or absolute coordinate system. The system has also been carefully designed so that each mesh and texture only needs to be loaded into memory once. This promotes very efficient memory usage so you can have a very large number of instances of objects in your system without also requiring a large amount of memory for every copy of the mesh or texture.

Another key feature provided by these visualization blocks is the ability to remotely connect to a visualization server with multiple clients. In one scenario, you might be running a real-time model on an unmanned aerial vehicle such as our new quadrotor UAV. Rather than trying to interpret what the 6 plot lines representing roll, pitch, yaw, and the x, y, z position translate to, you could add a visualization server to the UAV and stream the data to a visualization client. The server only sends the transformation information you need for your visualization, and none of the graphical information, so the impact on your model and communications bandwidth is minimal. The visualization blocks are also designed in such a way that they should never interfere with the operation of your real-time controller. In addition, the connection is persistent, so if your UAV goes out of radio range and then returns, the visualization will automatically reconnect.

The ability to connect with multiple clients to a common server opens up communication opportunities where a presenter could be demonstrating the operation of a model while multiple clients are watching, but with each client capable of wandering around the environment to look at it from different perspectives. You can even have multiple servers in a single diagram so you can have multiple representations of a common data set. One such interpretation might be different views from competing players in an air combat simulation, or more basic application might be one view to indicate your vehicle's current orientation, and a second view to indicate the position overlaid on a map.

The feature set is just about complete for QuaRC 2.0. We're currently working on lots of documentation and examples along with additional content files to get you up and running quickly. In the mean time, another hardware project is calling me...

- Derek -

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Few notes from a trip to China

In mid-August 2009, Kevin Zhang and I were on a two weeks trip visitng various places in China. Our first stop was Beijing and the Chinese Automation Education Conference where Shanghai Baolai Scientific Development, Inc., our distributor in China demonstrated some of Quanser's devices for teaching control. The conference was held at Beihang University and we had a chance to visit some of the university labs to see what their researchers are working on. We talked with Yi Yang, a PhD student who conducts a cutting-edge research on haptics and virtual reality systems. Turns out, he is a happy user of QuaRC, our real-time control software and Q8 Hardware-In-The_Loop board: "Conventionally we use VC++ and OpenGL to develop the control system and the visual interface. With Q8 and QuaRC, I can now do the same thing faster and the control sequence is much clearer than before, " he told us. "I suppose I might be one of the few people who have tried this new method in the VR society. Other members in my lab showed great interest in my work. "

During the trip we also attended a conference for young control scholars - YAC 2009 - held by Nantong University. We demonstrated Quanser Engineering Trainer (QET), linear inverted pendulum, rotary inverted pendulum, Maglev, 2 DOF Helicopter and Active Suspension - to show a small sample of Quanser's 80+ solutions for teaching and research. The professors were particularly impressed by the craftwork of our new product, the Active Suspension System, simulating a vehicle suspension system.

In between the conferences, we visited Tsinghua University, Northeastern University, and Shanghai Jiaotong University. We were impressed by the research that the professors are working on and glad to learn how Quanser solutions can help make their research easier. Dr. Li Liang at the Northeastern University is just awaiting a delivery of Quanser's shake table to enhance his structural dynamics and mine structure research.

We have also met with people from China offices of our partners, The Mathworks and National Instrument to discuss how to work together in the Chinese academic market. We have a lot of ideas and plans for the future, now we have to work on them!

- Nianqing -

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Webinar on Learning and Teaching with Teleoperated Instructional Shake Tables

Building upon tools developed within the NEES effort, the University Consortium on Instructional Shake Tables (UCIST) has developed a series of exercises to allow the students to perform remote experimentation using Quanser’s bench-top shake tables. Prof. Shirley Dyke, the founder and director of UCIST presented this project recently in a webinar. You can watch the recorded version to learn about the exercises and associated lab manuals developed based on these remote experiments and to see interesting demos that’s shows how Quanser’s Shake Table is operated remotely.

The main goal of this project is to provide opportunities for students worldwide to use tele-operated shake tables for learning (currently only 5 or 6 Shake Table in U.S. are tele-operated). Students can also see a direct link between engineering and real world applications. The project uses Quanser’s Active Mass Damper and a tele-operated Quanser’s Shake Table to introduce and demonstrate the real-life application of structural engineering concepts in the 2nd semester freshmen course.

In the remote experimentation students are able to operate a Shake Table over the internet, view live video and stream data on the local computer. This is achieved through developing an Real-time Data View interface. Students also learn more about MATLAB and various cyberinfrastructure tools.

Capabilities of this remote experiment have been well received by students. To assess the effectiveness of this teaching approach, 805 students were surveyed and the results show that all major indicators of learning increased over time. Any class size and class level can benefit from this remote hands-on platform.

Contact Prof. Dyke and UCIST at sdyke@wustl.edu to test the tele-operated Shake tables yourself!

Monday, August 31, 2009

NEES Webinar Learning and Teaching with Teleoperated Instructional Shake Tables

We would like to invite you for the NEES Webinar: Learning and Teaching with Teleoperated Instructional Shake Tables on Monday, August 31, 2009 at 9:00-10:00am Pacific/ 10:00-11:00am Mountain/ 11:00am-12:00pm Central/12:00-1:00pm Eastern.

Using Quanser's Shake Table II and utilizing tools developed in cooperation with the Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES), the University Consortium of Instructional Shake Tables (UCIST) has developed a series of exercises to allow your students to perform remote experimentation using bench-top shake tables. In this one hour NEES webinar you will
  • learn about the exercises and associated lab manuals developed based on these remote experiments
  • see demos of these remote experiments, including operating and viewing live experiments while downloading streaming data and video
  • have an opportunity to discuss the assessment survey, assessment results, and benefits of this approach to learning and teaching.

After this webinar you will be able to use these exercises, shaketable, and assessment tools in your classroom (for freshman undergraduate through graduate levels) to enhance your students' understanding of fundamental concepts in earthquake engineering and structural dynamics. An ever-growing network of universities is being developed to share these instructional shake tables and experiments to benefit future civil engineers, decision-makers and stakeholders. Your students will be able to take advantage of this technology to remotely operate shake tables housed at other universities, offering a wider variety of structural dynamics experiments.

Registration is free and open to all interested parties. To REGISTER for this Webinar, please click here.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Quanser Webinars: Leveraging the Latest Mechatronic Trends to Maximize Teaching Impact and Research Results

Industry demand for mechatronic controls engineers has dramatically grown over the past decade. Today, industry is looking for a new kind of engineer, one with multidisciplinary and systems integration experience. It is becoming increasingly important for students to learn how electrical, mechanical, computer and control systems interact with one another.

In this interactive live webinar, our engineers will show you how Quanser’s new Mechatronic plants can advance both teaching and research. You will find out how industry-relevant technologies such as the 6 DOF Hexapod Motion Platform, 3 DOF Gyroscope, Quarter-Car Active Suspension System, 2 DOF Planar Robot and Industrial Mechatronic Drives can help graduate better students and enhance research.

Register here for one of the following dates/times:

Wednesday, September 9
10.00-10.45 Eastern Standard Time (EST)
14.00-14.45 EST
22.00-22.45 EST

Tuesday, September 15
10.00-10.45 Eastern Standard Time (EST)
14.00-14.45 EST
22.00-22.45 EST

Wednesday, September 23
10.00-10.45 Eastern Standard Time (EST)
14.00-14.45 EST
22.00-22.45 EST

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

New QPID Data Acquisition Card Testing Complete

I made a mention back in June that we were working on a new data acquisition card. Well, we have just finished testing with our PCI prototype based on the NI PCI-7831R and we now have the final feature list:
  • 8 16-bit analog inputs with simultaneous sampling
  • 8 16-bit analog outputs with simultaneous sampling

  • 8 24-bit encoder inputs with quadrature decoding, filtering, and simultaneous sampling up to 40 MHz

  • Hardware based encoder velocities

  • 8 PWM outputs with configuration options suitable for general purpose single channel, H-bridges, hobby servos, and 3-phase motor control

  • SPI communications

  • 56 general purpose digital I/O

  • Hardware watchdog

  • External inputs for triggering conversions and interrupts

  • Multiple general purpose timers

  • Many possible synchronization options
We are particularly excited about the hardware based encoder velocity measurements. This gives you a very clean velocity measurement independent of your sample rate and jitter, and without doing any differentiation or filtering. The velocities are nearly instantaneous with no phase lag. This is particularly beneficial at low speeds or for lower encoder resolutions where you may only get a small number of counts per second.

As we finalize the mechanical case for the terminal board and all the software components we will be moving towards production and our official release!

New Quanser Quadrotor UAV

Last week we had some very exciting flight tests as our brand new Quanser Quadrotor UAV underwent some untethered flight tests and passed with flying colours. The design of our quadrotor is unique as the entire mechanism is enclosed within a protective carbon fiber cage (Patent Pending). Quanser's proprietary design ensures safe operation as well as opens the possibilities for a variety of novel applications. When seen for the first time the Quanser Quadrotor appears as a flying sphere. The cage is a crucial feature when you consider the potential consequences of flying multiple vehicles in close formation or in close quarters such as indoor laboratories. The carbon fiber frame provides protection against collision damage and if the helicopter should become unstable and fall to the ground, it will simply roll on its cage keeping the helicopter assembly safe.

The vehicle uses four 10-inch propellers and standard RC motors and speed controllers. The real brains of the vehicle lies in the Quanser Embedded Control Module (QECM), which is comprised of a Quanser HiQ Aero data acquisition card and a QuaRC-powered Gumstix embedded computer. The Quanser HiQ provides high-resolution accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer IMU sensors as well as servo outputs to drive the motors. In addition to the high-resolution IMU sensors, the HiQ has 4 sonar inputs, 2 pressure sensors, a serial GPS input, analog inputs, and a USB camera input. The on-board Gumstix computer runs QuaRC (Quanser's realtime control software), which allows us to rapidly develop and deploy controllers designed in MATLAB Simulink. The controllers run on-board the vehicle itself and runtime sensors measurement, data logging and parameter tuning is supported between the host PC and the target vehicle.

The video below shows one of our recent flight tests. The quadrotor is flown with a human-in-the-loop and a stabilizing controller. The HiQ sensors are used in a stabilizing controller, which is needed to keep the vehicle stable during flight. The entire controller is designed in Simulink including the joystick used to fly the vehicle. As we fly the vehicle, sensor data is streamed back to the host PC so we can monitor everything from vehicle sensors to controller performance. We can tune our filters and controller parameters remotely from the host PC during flight and immediately see the changes in vehicle stability and responsiveness. Finally, when we are confident that our controller is sufficiently robust, we add disturbances to the vehicle and watch that it maintains stability (i.e., it doesn't crash!).

This vehicle was extremely challenging and fun to develop. Look for more on the Quanser Quadrotor in future posts and on our website!


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

AIAA Guidance Navigation and Control Conference

Last week the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics held the 2009 Guidance Navigation and Control Conference in Chicago, IL. I attended the conference and was able to see some very interesting presentations on topics including UAV tracking algorithms, multi-vehicle formation design, mission planning tools and strategies, simulation, modeling and system identification. I was also presenting a paper on the development of autonomous UAVs using the Quanser Embedded Control Module (powerd by Gumstix), the Procerus Kestrel autopilot, and fixed-wing Zagi UAVs (Li et al., Multiple UAVs Autonomous Mission Implementation on COTS Autopilots and Experimental Results).

From what I saw, there is no lack of innovation in the theoretical and experimental development of UAVs and related technologies. With the unmanned vehicles being developed here at Quanser, we hope to provide researchers with the tools needed to continue developing and innovating within their field. Look for us at next year's conference!

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Quanser's New Acquisition - KUKA Robots

It looked like half of the engineering team must have had a birthday a few days ago - they were all smiles, and I thought they were hiding a birthday cake in their R&D area as they all gathered there... Well, it wasn't a birthday cake, but nonetheless a present of some sort. The long awaited KUKA Robots arrived. After unpacking, the rest of us were allowed to pay KUKAs a visit (but don't touch!).
KUKA Robots are a welcome addition to Quanser's Engineering R&D Area

Zuzana: So, what are these toys for, Paul? (Paul is the Engineering Director at Quanser)
Paul: Thanks to the great precision and reliability of the robots, we are hoping to use them for development of teleoperation applications, as well as add them to the line of robotic manipulators we support.

Zuzana: Why did you choose KUKA Robots?
Paul: KUKA is one of the leading manufacturers of industrial robots. The robot we selected is compact yet incredibly precise and fast. It can operate in a tight space, which is extremely useful for the type of applications we are developing. Another key factor was the KUKA Robot Sensor Interface (RSI) that allows for an open architecture interface to an external application like QuaRC, our real-time control software. The common controller interface makes it possible to extend QuaRC's interface to a complete line of KUKA Robots. Working closely with KUKA engineers, we were able to rapidly interface our new robot to QuaRC to enable more advanced research in robotics, control and mechatronics.

Stay tuned for more news from our engineers on Quanser's KUKA robot projects. Subscribe to our RSS for automatic updates.

Quanser at NI-Week 2009

Anyone who has been to NIWeek before knows what a great conference it is to attend. Lots of new and cool products, great people from academia as well as industry, plus an energetic atmosphere, make this conference a great experience for all attendees.

As a National Instruments partner, Quanser was of course there to show its latest developments in partnership with NI and their software and hardware. We had brought quite a few devices for teaching and research and the demos were getting a lot of attention, especially our Quanser NI Engineering Trainers (QNETs), modular Rotary Experiments and Active Suspension. A lot of people were amazed that the experiments come with a full comprehensive curriculum with a wide range of pre-lab and in-lab exercises that could accompany the hardware throughout an entire semester course. The professors we talked to, agreed that receiving such curriculum with the hardware saves them a lot of time and hassle that they have to put in before the start of each semester to design and write-up a related curriculum.

People had a lot of fun with our two inverted pendulums (SRV-02 ROTPEN and QNET ROT-PEN) as everyone tried to to find out how much disturbance they could handle before falling down! Even if they did fall down, they would swing back up automatically thanks to the energy-based swing up controller that was designed and implemented in LabVIEW. Seems that our YouTube Channel is doing a great job for us - most people who saw the Active Suspension demo went "...ooh yea, this is the one I was on YouTube!"

Another Quanser Active Suspension system was shown in one of NI booths, controlled with LabVIEW and the CompactRIO. It wasn't a surprise to see Quanser experiments in other booths as well. For example in the LabVIEW Zone, two Quanser Linear Inverted Pendulum systems were demonstrated, controlled in real-time with LabVIEW and simulated in a virtual graphical environment at the same time.

The exhibition hall was not the only place that had action going on. Technical sessions in a variety of topics such as Military and Aerospace, Robotics and Vision were happening all day long in addition to a keynote speech given every morning in one of which NI announced the release of LabVIEW 2009 that is loaded with new features and built-in functionalities. We at Quanser are excited to try some of these new features in our developments of LabVIEW-based controllers that come with our hardware and curriculum. A few of these features include the automatic multi-threading of for loops, enhanced icon editor and the LabVIEW Mathscript RT Module. We are also marking our calendars from now for next year's NIWeek and so should you. Remember to visit NI's website for a collection of NIWeek09 videos, product releases and more.


The new QNET Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) Trainer is an aerospace plant that enables students to learn about basic flight dynamics and control. The front end of the VTOL body is fitted with a rotor actuator that has a thrust of approximately 32 g at 1.5 A. The body is anchored to an encoder shaft from where the pitch position can be measured. On the back end of the body, an adjustable counter-weight enables the user to vary the amount of thrust needed to attain a certain desired position.

The VTOL curriculum includes modeling, system identification, model validation, and control design exercises. A sample of the curriculum is pictured below. The goal is to control the pitch position of the VTOL. To do this, students must first obtain a model. This can be done manually by performing a few experiments and looking at the equation of motion. It can also be obtained using system identification tools such as the LabVIEW System Identification Toolkit. Once validated, the model can be used to design the flight control system. This involves designing a PI current controller for the rotor actuator and an outer PID feedback system to control the position (i.e. cascade controller).

As with other QNETs, the VTOL connects to the NI ELVIS II system (also compatible with ELVIS I) and runs with the LabVIEW software. VIs accompanying the curriculum are supplied with the system. The VTOL Flight Control VI is shown below.

The QNET-014 VTOL Trainer is available for purchase on the NI website.

Phantom devices in QUARC

QuaRC is expanding itself to support more third-party hardware every day to make it possible for its users to access a variety of hardware in their designs. As a step in this process, QUARC is going to support Phantom haptic devices. Phantom devices are categorized into 4 main types: Omni, Desktop, Premium A, and Premium 6 DOF. The first 3 types have 6 degreees of freedom sensing and 3 degrees of freedom actuation, and the Premium 6 DOF has 6 degrees of freedom sensing and actuation.

A block is going to be added to the QUARC library which is in charge of working with these devices. This block reads data from the device, and sends user commands to it. User can choose the type of inputs and outputs of the device from the block. For example, it is possible to read raw encoder values, position, or joint and gimbal angels of the device, so user can choose the most suitable format. The same flexibility is provided for the actuation commands, and they can be either force or torque for each joint separately, or the force and torque in Cartesian space.

Multiple devices can be controlled by a single model using a phantom block per device. Moreover, QUARC provides the option to limit the maximum velocity of the device's arm to ensure safty. User can choose to activate this option and change the maximum acceptable value for the velocity. Another safety feature is that the block saturates the force commands to the device based on its spec.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Stages of Grant Poposals

Several weeks ago, we were sitting here at Quanser brainstorming what we could do to help our clients gain funding for their projects. We’ve helped with writing proposals before, but wanted to create a more systematic approach to address the different stages of receiving a grant. Each one of these stages has unique opportunities and we’ll write about them over the next few weeks.

Here’s what we came up with:

1. “I’m thinking about writing a grant proposal”

2. “I’m writing a grant proposal right now”

3. “I submitted my grant proposal and am waiting for an answer”

4. “Yes! I won the grant and I’m waiting for funding to come through.”
Alternate: “Nope, not this time. What should I do now?”

5. “Received funding and am acquiring resources now.”

Which stage are you at?