Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Teleoperating a Denso Robot

A year ago I wrote about our open architecture 6 Degree of Freedom (DOF) Denso robot. Coupled with Quanser's QUARC control software, it offers researchers and students an extremely user-friendly programming environment. That means they can use the industrial grade robot in teaching and research labs, without having to spend their time typing endless lines of low level code to move a robotic arm. No wonder the robot workstation has become increasingly popular with our academic clients and research partners.

As an example, consider the Health Research Innovation Centre at University of Calgary. The setup at the Centre, which includes our Denso Open Architecture Robot Workstation and a high definition haptic device HD^2 is used for research and development of the neuroArm, a robotic arm used for telesurgery.

The video below demonstrates the Denso robot being teleoperated by the HD^2 high definition haptic device. Communication is conducted over shared memory for optimized bilateral teleoperation performance. It can be easily switched to another protocol over the Internet using QUARC blocksets.

The motion of the operator’s hand is captured by the haptic device at a high resolution and speed. This motion then drives the end-effector of the Denso robot over 6 degrees of freedom, i.e., translational x, y, z, and rotational roll, pitch and yaw. The measured forces and torques at the tip of the robot are applied back to the operator through the haptic device.

The monitor, visible at the top left corner of the video, demonstrates an OpenGL visualization of the Denso robot in real-time where some virtual objects are added to the graphics of the Denso robot. These virtual objects represent the virtual fixtures that act on the tip of the robot. When the robot end-effector goes into contact with these virtual objects, a feedback force is calculated based on the simulated dynamics of the objects. The force is then applied back to the user through the haptic device. As a result, the operator will be repelled from certain regions in the robot workspace. One can think of it as a means of guiding the surgeon out of some delicate regions of a brain during the surgery.

Overall, in this setup, the Denso robot, a 7 DOF haptic device, the simulation, and the force sensor are all interfaced to each other on a single PC through QUARC control software. Along with all this is a 1 DOF actuator at the end-effector of the robot, which is controlled through a QUARC serial communication blockset.

To sum up, the 6 DOF Denso Open Architecture Robot Workstation from Quanser is a state of the art, cost-effective solution for all those interested in teaching robotics or doing research in this field. No surprise that its popularity is growing by the day.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

NIWeek 2011: It's Everything a Conference Should Be!

There's a saying that has stuck with me through the years and always seems to fulfill its promise: "Be careful what you wish for, it just might come true!" In my previous blog I described some recent conference experiences where there wasn't a lot of engagement with attendees on the floor. I spoke about actually longing for sore feet from standing at the booth all day and a hoarse throat from talking all day. I also commented on how I felt like I had lost out to tablets and smarthphones since conference attendees seemed more interested in their iPhones and Blackberries than talking to industry reps!

Then came along National Instruments' annual trade show and conference, NIWeek, and everything changed. My faith in conferences was restored and I got everything I wished for - my feet were sore, my throat was sore, and people actually wanted to talk to me!

The Focus on Academia is Getting Stronger

NIWeek has been a staple in our conference schedule for over seven years and I believe this was my fifth year attending it. It is not the traditional 'academic' conference that we usually go to. It's tailored to showcase all of NI's new products and updates an mainly targets an industry and commercial engineering audience. Through the years, NI has given Academia a bigger focus and I definitely see that momentum growing, as this year's Academic Forum drew nearly 400 people!

The Quanser entourage arrived late Sunday night and we converged at the hotel bar for some pre-conference planning (and drinking). In preparing for the conference, we knew that Monday's Academic Forum, the first day of the trip, would be our busiest day. We had to set up the Quanser booth on the main show floor, set up and be present during the Academic Forum, then be ready for the show opening on Monday evening. On paper it looked tight, yet manageable...

After a hearty Texan breakfast, we set out to the Convention Center directly across the street from our hotel. Austin in August is hot. How hot? With only a 30 foot walk, I was already sweating (9am, 100F/38C!).

We had a tabletop display at the Academic Forum that was only supposed to go from 11.30am to 1pm. We thought that would be plenty of time to set up, tear down and get the equipment to the Quanser booth for the show opening. We'd just started to set up when eager professors, students and NI employees came over to talk. What should have been a 15 minute set up, took us an hour and a half, because we were engaged in demos and discussions the whole time - and the Academic Forum hadn't even started.

Our Shared Passion is Engineering Education

Luckily at 11.30 Dave Wilson, NI's Director of Academic and Corporate Marketing, took the stage and allowed us to get our set up finished. If you've ever heard Dave Wilson speak, you're aware of his tremendous enthusiasm and passion for engineering education - the same passion that we share at Quanser. Dave's keynote address was exciting and engaging; it was almost 90 minutes long and didn't lose a single listener. He took us from abstract ideas about futuristic teaching to technical descriptions of NI's new forays into engineering education. I don't know how he maintained his energy that long, but it's testament to his obvious passion for enhancing the state of engineering education. It's NI employees like Dave that make partnering with a company like NI such a great fit for Quanser.

Although our tabletop display was supposed to be over at one o'clock, we had all seven Quanser delegates around one small table, talking long past one to professors and NI employees alike about our current demonstrations along with some ideas we're developing for the future.

Quanser "myPLANT" Demo Draws Raves

One of those up and coming ideas was showcased this year - our new myPLANT that couples directly to NI's myDAQ unit. I have never debuted a (future) product that had such an emotional and powerful response from everyone we showed it to.

The main purpose of this product is to allow students to do laboratory exercises without the constraint of being in the lab. That puts myPLANT right in the middle of the continuum between purely theoretical work and hand-on experimentation. It offers the student the ability to learn and study at their own pace while still having a hands-on experience where they are interfacing and interacting with a piece of hardware. The other benefit is that they can take their developed control systems (VIs) and directly target the actual experimental setup when they do eventually get to the lab.

The responses and reactions of everyone who saw myPLANT in action were very good. I was shocked at how many new ideas and methods of deployment people were coming up with that we had not even considered This is sure to be an interesting platform for development with an important role in teaching the next generation of engineers!

Since the official show floor was scheduled to open at 5.30pm with the annual exhibition happy hour (great food and drinks provided), we had to close down our tabletop display and race over with the equipment to the booth. We were ready just in time, as the food was brought out and the kegs were rolled in. If you've never tried a local Texan beer called Shiner Bock, please do so - you will not be disappointed; it was one of the highlights of NIWeek!

NIWeek Was a Huge Success

NIWeek was a big success in my opinion and served as a stark contrast to my experience at ASEE/ACC the previous month. Our booth was constantly busy. The energy on the show floor was electric an I did non stop talking, which can only emphasize just how good a show it was!

Aside from the beer and food, the true highlights of NIWeek were the keynote presentations. National Instruments is a technology company that pulls out all the stops when they put on a show. There are tons of product launches and performance comparisons. Plus it's an all around good time, complete with loud cheers and shouts from the crowds. The keynote presentations allow NI to showcase their latest developments and also serve to motivate the crowd and inspire trust in NI technology as a whole. I always leave the keynotes wondering where I should place my next NI tattoo.

A Great Texas Experience

Austin is known as the world capital of live music and, after a long day of talking and boothing at the show, there's nothing better than heading out with your co-workers to see some live bands on Sixth street, downtown Austin's entertainment center. Sixth street is lined on both sides with bars that feature great bands and cheap drinks. With $1 Shiner Bocks available, who can resist letting loose, unwinding and enjoying some great music after a gratifying day on the show floor. (not us.) With all those dollars spent, getting up the next morning was a little difficult, but having a keynote to look forward to sure made it a little easier...

I began by mentioning an old saying that I thought was particularly true. I'll end with another truism that really sums up this trip: Everything is Bigger in Texas!

- Paul Karam

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Keeping Austin Weird

Quanser partner National Instruments (NI) of Austin, Texas, holds an annual conference called NI Week. Truth be known, it's the biggest Nerdfest in the universe. This year did not disappoint with almost 4,000 attendees all there to celebrate data acquisition, instrumentation, and hardware in the loop (HIL) simulation. As a cohesive group, we did justice to Austin's whimsical slogan "Keep Austin Weird".

I've attended NI Week in other contexts in the past. This was my first flying the Quanser colors (red to be precise), and the first time that I saw how our technology plays nicely with the industry leaders in instrumentation. The context was our NI line of products including various QNET control plant devices that snap onto NI's popular ELVIS II platform and a concept product that we produced to illustrate the potential of virtual plants in control education, working on the slick NI myDAQ platform.

Ultimately the goal will be to precisely replicate virtually all of the rich experiences that a student could have in a real lab on campus, but in the more comfortable and accessible surrounds of his or her dorm room or a favorite coffee shop. We showed our super-duper top secret prototype -- cleverly named "myPlant" and it definitely caught peoples' attention. You'll be hearing a lot more of the technical details of this concept as time goes on but I was definitely impressed with an amazing educational scenario that this innocent looking device foretold.

Basically, the combination of myDAQ and myPlant allows you to do real engineering anywhere, anytime. Real I/O, realtime, real cool! Main difference is that with myPlant, you would be working with a virtual plant delivered via the myPlant device complete with an amazingly real animated visualization -- but all of the design thinking is 100% real engineering. The technical term is Model In the Loop (MIL) vs. Hardware in the Loop (HIL) but the loop part is the same. So once you've done your clever engineering thinking and designing and first set of tests, while sipping an ice latte at the Starbucks, you can go your campus lab, flip a switch in LabVIEW, and voilĂ ! You're ready to validate your design and compare results. This in all senses, is a complete engineering workflow.

Most of the profs and students who saw the demos simply "got it" and indeed the word spread pretty fast and it was difficult to find a moment of peace during the four days. The few who didn't get it seemed not so much opposed to the idea but more uncertain of the possibilities. Much like Austin the city, they suspected that there was something genuinely special in the concept under the somewhat unconventional (or weird) workflow. So special, that even these sceptics went to the trouble of dragging their colleagues over to the demonstration to get a second opinion. In many ways, this is not too unlike the experience of discovering Pete's Dueling Piano Bar on East 6th Street and a very good start, IMHO, to the eventual introduction of a uniquely modern and effective solution for control education.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

QUARC 2.2: Significant reduction of model build time

The release of QUARC 2.2 control design software is imminent and highly anticipated throughout the control education and research community. In this post I want to introduce one of the long-awaited new features – one that should increase your anticipation even further, because it will greatly facilitate your teaching and research.

Linux Verdex Target Cross-Compilation on Host Means Much Shorter Build Time

Researchers and engineers alike have greatly appreciated QUARC’s thorough support on Gumstix Verdex, even though it could take several minutes to build a complicated model for a Verdex target. The reason why building a model took so much time was that the source code was being downloaded onto the board and built natively by the on-board ARM processor, which is not nearly as powerful as a modern CPU.

In this new release we bring an LLVM-based cross-compiler into QUARC and allow you to build code for Linux Verdex Target on your Windows host PC. By utilizing the computational power of current PCs, building time is reduced significantly. Unless you actually want to take a coffee break every time you build a model on Verdex, you’ll appreciate this new feature.

The following video clip shows the significant speed difference between the two compilers (on QUARC 2.1 and QUARC 2.2) in building the Sine and Scope Demo for the Verdex target (the one on the right side is QUARC 2.2 with the LLVM-based cross-compiler). As you'll see, the QUARC 2.2 compiler takes only 40 seconds to build its model, while the 2.1 compiler, at 120 seconds, takes three times longer.

Quanser's UVS users will be able to benefit immediately from the much faster compilation times achieved by the cross-compiler we developed and included in QUARC 2.2. The Verdex target is used in our unmanned vehicle systems (UVS) including the Qbot, Qball, HiQ, and the upcoming Quanser Ground Vehicle QGV, which we demonstrated at the recent ASEE 2011 and ACC 2011 Conferences.

Stay tuned for upcoming posts on some of the other new and very exciting advanced features of the soon-to-be released QUARC 2.2 control design software.

Click here for more information about QUARC.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Quanser Innovation on View at ASEE 2011

For the second straight year, Quanser had the honor of hosting the Innovation Hub - a showcase of the cutting-edge technology that's becoming a part of the ASEE Annual Conference and Exposition. This year at ASEE 2011 in Vancouver, BC, we demonstrated a prototype of our brand new unmanned ground vehicle platform called QGV - the Quanser Ground Vehicle. The QGV allows the study of advanced unmanned systems technologies by operating an easy-to-use platform that can be integrated into research as well as undergraduate curriculum.

In this video you can see how the QGV uses its on-board sensors to perform a basic search and retrieve mission:

The QGV in action at the Innovation Hub at ASEE 2011.

The QGV platform is one of the latest examples of Quanser technology that's designed to give engineering students a deeper and more immediate experience with engineering technology. By using hands-on platforms like the QGV, universities around the world can give their students a better, well-rounded engineering education - one that delivers richer understanding of engineering technologies and better prepares their students to enter the workforce, with the practical skills that today's employers require.

If you want to learn more about Quanser's unmanned platforms, visit our website or email us.