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 to test the tele-operated Shake tables yourself!