Sunday, March 15, 2009

Shaking Down the House

The Annual Undergraduate Seismic Design Competition, run as a part of annual meetings of Earthquake Engineering Research Institute (EERI), is gaining more and more popularity every year. In 2009, 17 teams of undergrad students from U.S. universities participated and for the next year even more teams are expected. The event helps connect students with problems of real-life engineering and gives them tremendous motivation in their studies or research.

In this competition, participating student teams are required to construct a building-like structure. Their structure are then placed on Quanser’s Shake Table that simulates an earthquake. A panel of judges determines the winning team based on the structures’ performance.

This year, Sunny Ray, an engineer and academic solutions advisor from Quanser was appointed as a judge. For him, the highlights of the competition included the ‘final shake-down’, where teams can choose to shake their structures until they collapse and experiencing the students’ enthusiasm first-hand. Watch the short video to see how much fun learning can be.


Saturday, March 14, 2009

Graduate Students, Be Smart!

I recently came across an interesting article by Tom Daniel. Although a professor of biology, his advise on how to look for the right lab is applicable to engineering too:
  • Sample a range of lab environments and cultures and find a lab that will help you develop as a researcher
  • Find out what the ground rules and expectations are
  • Look for opportunities that will benefit your career
  • Be smart: the best lab is not necessarily the one that pays the most. Success is not always about being comfortable - so look for a lab where you will be pushed a bit.
  • Evaluate labs: In an established lab, find out what’s the lab’s track record? Where have people ended up working after their lab experience? Younger faculty members may not have well established labs but often bring the newest ideas to the discipline and are often willing to spend time with graduate students.
  • Be clear about your own expectations for mentorship in a lab: how often would you like to meet with faculty mentors? Ask other graduate students in the lab about the nature and extent of mentorship.
  • Make good use of your lab work: publish early and publish often
  • Participation is the key to any successful lab. Recognize that you have the potential to be a valuable contributor from the very first day you walk in the door. Learn from others and support others in the lab.
What are your tips for grad students looking for the right lab? Post your comments!

What Do Employers Want? Engineers Versed in Mechatronics

The importance of cross-functional knowledge of engineers is emphasized more and more by industry - we read it in various articles, hear about it directly from industry representatives at various forums. Mechatronics, which combines and inter-connectes engineering disciplines like mechanical, electrical, computer and control engineering, is clearly addressing the need. Many universities recognize it - mechatronic programs are expanding - and many more universities are brainstorming the best ways how to start up such programs. Among them is Canada's Laurentian University.

A co-organizer of the ICMT 2008 Conference took
the opportunity to raise an important question with the mechatronics experts from around the world that gathered at the conference to discuss and share the best international practices and expertise - how to create an innovative Mechatronic Program at the University. Dr. Markus Timusk and Dr. Brahim Chebbi brought to the round table discussion participants from Japan, England, Mexico, Germany, China, USA and Canada. Recognizing its leadership in Mechatronics, Robotics and Control, Quanser was also invited to join the discussion. The recommendation for the Laurentian Mechatronic Program was to build on local industry, its knowledge and experience. With mining being a major influence on the local economy, the program should have a slant towards heavy machinery and mining - in that way students would benefit from local expertise and could eventually support the community they got educated in. Another suggestion - build the program around multi-disciplinary mechatronic design projects and include a “keystone” project course, in which students will be exposed to often untaught intricacies of interfacing and mechatronics design.

We at Quanser took a step back and asked: what can we do to make sure that educators have teaching tools that will ensure industry gets engineers with cross-functional skills they need?

Design philosophy for developing any mechatronic system is based on understanding control principles. And that's Quanser comes in.This collection of five hands-on experiments are much-needed teaching tools to help students understand the control principles underlying all mechatronic sytems. All experiments in our Mechatronic Controls Collection are industry-driven and reflects the type of systems students will work with in industry after graduation. Our Active Suspension experiment, for example, teaches students by simulating a quarter car model. Another experiment from the collection - the 3 DOF Gyroscope allows to study dynamic properties of gyroscopes used in various practical applications such as control and guidance systems for air, sea and space vehicles. Completing the collection are Hexapod, 6 DOF motion platform capable of moving high loads at high accelerations within a small workspace, 2 DOF Planar Robot, a parallel robotic used to teach various robot concepts such as kinematics and calibration and Industrial Mechatronic Drives Unit (IMDU) with its Web Transport and Multi-DOF Torsion modules. With exception of IMDU - all completly new products. Stay tuned. More information on the new products will be posted soon on this blog.

Quanser's Active Suspension

Quanser's 3 DOF Gyroscope

Quanser's Hexapod

Quanser's 2 DOF Planar Robot

Quanser's IMDU Web Transport


Wednesday, March 11, 2009

QUARC: Remote Haptic Teleoperation of a R/C Truck

This haptic teleoperation demonstration harnesses the latest features of the soon-to-be-released QuaRC 1.2. It uses of a commercially available Novint Falcon haptic input device to haptically drive an off-the-shelf radio-controlled truck (R/C truck) similar to the one illustrated below.

The setup consists of two QUARC models, each running on a different platform, and communicating with each other through wireless TCP/IP. The first QUARC model interfaces to the Novint Falcon, represented below, and runs on a Windows PC or laptop to which the Falcon is connected using a USB port.

This QUARC model reads the Falcon end-effector handle position and converts it to steering and throttle commands to be sent to the R/C truck. Additionally, it also makes the Falcon ouput and emulate any inertial force felt by the remotely controlled truck in motion, due to, for example, acceleration, deceleration, bumps in the terrain, and/or impacts when hitting an obstacle. This, therefore, renders a haptic driving sensation to the teleoperating user.

The second QUARC model runs on the R/C truck itself! This is achieved by retrofitting the R/C vehicle, as displayed below.

As depicted above and also in more details in the picture below, the R/C truck is equipped with a Gumstix Verdex and Robostix system, now both supported by QuaRC 1.2. Furthermore, a wifi networking board is also connected to the Verdex for wireless communication capabilities. The second QUARC model runs on the Verdex board (using the new QuaRC Linux ARM target), which interfaces to the Robostix in order to generate the two PWM signals (as commanded by the Falcon input device) controlling the truck steering and throttle R/C servos. Additionally, a three-axis accelerometer is also mounted on the vehicle so that its inertial forces can be sensed. The resulting acceleration signals are acquired using three of the Robostix analog inputs.

It should be noted that the embedded QUARC controller running on the Gumstix Verdex starts automatically at boot (i.e., when the R/C truck battery is plugged in) and acts as a communication server. Once connected to the other QUARC model, interfacing to the Falcon and acting as a communication client under Windows, the Verdex embedded controller receives the PWM R/C servo commands and sends in turn the truck's three-axis acceleration data.

It should also be highlighted that each QUARC model, running either in Windows or in Linux on the Verdex, is also communicating to its respective Simulink diagram using Simulink external mode. All of Simulink external mode features are fully suported by any of the QUARC targets (e.g., Windows, Linux ARM, QNX), which allows for, for example, on-the-fly parameter tuning, online plotting, and data collection.

Further developments of this described haptic teleoperation system could include adding a Virtual Reality simulator, using the QUARC currently-being-developed OpenGL-based Visualization toolbox.

Quanser ALTAV

As part of Quanser's development of a cooperative control framework for multi-vehicle control, we have designed a new Almost Lighter Than Air Vehilcle (ALTAV). The Quanser ALTAV is an innovative aerial vehicle incorporating an 11-foot helium filled envelope with the Quanser Control Module (QCM). The ALTAV resembles a blimp with 4 motors mounted to the sides of the envelope, with each motor connected to a servo-actuated arm for additional degrees of freedom on the motors.The Quanser Control Module contains the Quanser designed and built HiQ Aero data acquisition board. The HiQ Aero features the following sensors and outputs:
  • 3-axis accelerometer
  • 3-axis gyro
  • 3-axis magnetometer
  • 10 PWM servo outputs
  • 9 analog input channels
  • temperature sensors
  • 2 pressure sensors
  • integrated with the Gumstix verdex embedded system
The most powerful feature of the QCM comes from the Gumstix embedded system which runs QuaRC, Quanser's real-time control software. MATLAB Simulink models developed on a desktop or laptop can be seamlessly downloaded and compiled (over wifi) onto the Gumstix. This allows rapid testing and development of controllers as well as wireless data streaming back to the host computer and wireless communications with other vehicles through the QuaRC communication toolset. The QCM is a powerful embedded control module, which will be seen in several Quanser vehicles currently being developed.

The following video shows an earlier version of the Quanser ALTAV in action. The innovative design of the Quanser ALTAV combined with the power of QuaRC makes the ALTAV a valuable vehicle in the Quanser fleet.


(Note: Quanser's ALTAV HiQ Pack is slated for release in April 2009)

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

New Engineer on our Team

Recently, a new engineer joined Quanser's Team, so let us introduce him: Kaveh Elizeh.

Kaveh got his Masters degree from McMaster University under supervision of Dr. Nicola Nicolici. His thesis focused on improving the performance of internal memory access in today’s FPGAs.

Kaveh started at Quanser as a system designer working on driver development for QuaRC software as his first task. He is working on some Data Acquisition Cards provided by NI, introducing their different features to QuaRC to make it more convenient to use with a large set of peripheral third-party hardware. Performing this task, Kaveh can use his knowledge of hardware systems combined with software programming skills, his main areas of interest, to create a flexible and easy-to-use hardware interface for QuaRC.

Although Kaveh is new to Quanser, Quanser is not new to him:

"My first impression with Quanser was about 2 years ago," he explains. "I was working on a real-time soft tissue modeling method which is useful in remote surgery. Together with a group of professors and students from McMaster University I had a attended a meeting with Quanser engineering team to present our achievements in that project. At that time I was amazed by the projects which were developed in Quanser. It looked like a robotic wonderland to me. And two years later, there I am…"

Welcome Kaveh and good luck!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

A Day in a Life of a Haptic Engineer

Recently students from Seneca College reached out to us to learn more about 'Haptics'. For future engineers interested in this growing discipline, the Q&A below gives a great snapshot of what professional Haptics engineers might be working on.

Q: How would you describe Haptics to someone who is unfamiliar with this technology?

A: Here is a couple of paragraphs from my thesis that I think will more or less answer this question:

‘The word haptic is derived from the Greek word 'haptikos' which translates to ”relating to or involving the sense of touch”. In order to have the sense of touch from the surrounding environment, one is equipped with tactile receptors as well as the kinesthesia. Tactile receptors in the skin are to sense texture, pressure, temperature, roughness and vibration while the kinesthesia is a sense mediated by receptors located in muscles, tendons, and ligaments and stimulated by bodily movements and external tensions/forces. Haptics technology is rendering of perceptual reality through stimulating the sense of touch by programmable machine made forces. Haptics is finding a wide and still emerging range of industrial, medical, educational, and scientific applications. These include but are not limited to teleoperation tasks where dexterity and precision is required in the control of slave robots such as robotic-assisted surgeries, space and undersea expeditions or interacting with hazardous environments. Virtual reality training simulators, human rehabilitation systems, computer-aided virtual prototyping , and gaming are some other promising applications of haptics. Haptic rendering algorithms are employed either to provide direct interaction with virtual environments or to produce virtual fixtures in robot manipulation tasks. The ultimate goal of haptics is to eliminate the boundaries between the real and virtual world in order to create the illusion of presence and direct immersive interaction with virtual or remote objects.’

An example of a haptic device - Quanser's 5DOF Haptic Wand

Q: How does Haptics technology work? What is it all about?

A: More scientifically, a Haptic interface is an example of a sampled-data system consisting of a continuous-time system and a discrete-time system. The discrete-time part is the sampled-data controller and the virtual environment simulator running on a CPU or a FPGA. The continuous-time part includes the human user interacting with a haptic device.

A haptic device is a bidirectional instrumented/actuated human-machine interface, employed by the human user order to actively interact with a computer simulated virtual environment. The goal of a haptic device is to stimulate human kinesthesia and tactile receptors in order to simulate immersive interaction with virtual objects. A haptic device can be in the form of a mouse, steering wheel, fingerpad, robotic handle, gripper, joystick, gloves, magnetically levitated wrist, or even motion platforms that move the entire user’s body. It can be used to simulate an environment with mass, damping, friction, and stiffness properties or it can mimic the mechanical behavior of a virtual tool interacting with its surrounding virtual environment. The type of the human receptors that haptic devices are targeting is one of the key factors that determines their shape, size and mechanical design.

Q: Why is Haptics important?

A: I have already mentioned some of the haptics applications. As an example, haptic virtual fixtures can help a surgeon in a brain surgery by preventing him/her from getting into some pre-specified deadly areas of the brain. A story on our blog has a good example of why it is important to surgeons in training.

Q: Is Haptics a rapidly growing field?

A: Haptics is a top research topic in many universities and companies now. The cost of haptics technology is drastically falling compared to the past decade as more inexpensive electronics and processor technologies are being developed. This helps haptics to be a rapidly growing field. Future belongs to new generations of robots and haptics proves its necessity when it comes to human/robot interactions.

Q: What is the most popular Haptics software or device on the market today?

A: As for the software, QuaRC developed by Quanser is the most reliable and growing real-time operating system. As for the device, PHANTOM developed by Sensable has been the most popular haptic device so far.

Q: Who benefits the most from this innovative technology?

A: Gamers are one of the biggest groups who have benefited from haptics technology in the past. Surgeons are using this technology for minimally invasive surgeries. This technology is being used for many training applications such as rehabilitation. Human/robot interaction is a big research topic in universities. The rehab robot is a great example.

Q: How does Quanser come up with the idea for some of the products you have created like the rehab robot (Autonomous Upper-Limb Stroke Rehabilitation Device)?

A: Let us start with this quote:“Necessity is the mother of invention, it is true, but its father is creativity, and knowledge is the midwife”. Either we find the necessity for our products in everyday life or our clients introduce it to us. The rest is left to the creativity and knowledge of our professional team of engineers.

Quanser's Rehabilitation robot helps patients recover faster.

Q: What education, training or knowledge is essential for working with robotics and haptic technology?

A: Having a degree in electrical and computer engineering or in mechanical engineering is usually sufficient to enter the huge market of research and development of this technology. Many companies hire engineering interns, which can help students get more industry experience and validate their career path.

Q: What work is specifically done each day in your job? Can you describe your daily job routine?

A: We do almost everything in terms of software and hardware implementation to make an intelligent living creature out of electronics and other dead pieces. These creatures are often supposed to interact with humans which introduces many challenges to us as engineers. More specifically, here is a list of what I do at my current position:

Designing new robotic manipulators and mechatronics devices for educational and industrial applications

Finding innovative solutions for the design and implementation issues in terms of the device architecture and electronics based on the application

Solving many control challenges that we face with our new devices or we receive from our industrial clients.

Preparing demos and programs for our products depending on their different applications

Doing statistical analysis and study on human perceptual abilities mainly in the field of haptics and teleoperation

Documenting manuals and curricula for our new educational and industrial products

"Banana surgery" - demonstration of Quanser's teleoperation system

Q: What are the greatest challenges in this position? What are the demands and frustrations that typically accompany this job?

A: Our company is one of the pioneers in the field of mechatronics and robotics. This brings us so many new challenges every day. As an engineer, I face many control and design challenges and solving these problems is what keeps me satisfied. My position requires a lot of brain activities in terms of finding innovative solutions. That is the main demand of the job but not the frustrating part of the job. The frustration is when I notice that a challenge is not solvable based on the existing resources (especially time).

Q: How did you get involved in this type of work?

A: Working in the field of robotics/mechatronics has been my passion since my childhood. I aimed all my educational activities towards this field. My academic background in electrical engineering and my passion helped me and guided me to fit into my current job position.

Q: What do you like about your job? Any dislikes?

A: Versatility and new challenges of the projects is the most exciting part of my job. Watching our sophisticated products working properly after a lot of effort and brainstorming is the best part of the job. Personally, the part of my job that does not attract me that much is the documentation of our products.

Q: What skills does it take to be successful in your job?

A: Above average programming skills and excellent understanding of control systems, electronics, and physics (university level). It is very important to gain engineering attitudes while taking engineering courses in the university. This is not achievable unless you combine your theoretical knowledge with hands-on experiences.

Q: What kind of advice would you give a student who is interested in doing what you do?

A: Always try to be an expert in whatever you do. The more time you spend on studying and experimenting in your interested field of study, the more skills and experience you achieve. This results in a successful career in your future. Seek out experts and professionals that do what you want to do. Ask questions. Shadow. Take a multi-faceted approach to becoming an expert.