Friday, September 23, 2011

Where is Engineering Education Headed?

Something very interesting happened earlier this week. I was invited by Dr. Tom Lee, our Chief Education Officer, to a brainstorming session with several professors from a prominent Canadian university to explore engaging and effective methods for teaching first year engineering. Also present at this session were four other Quanser colleagues: Paul Gilbert, our CEO; Paul Karam, Director of Engineering; Mahyar Fotoohi, our Canadian Academic Advisor; and Dr. Jacob Apkarian, our Founder and Chief Technology Officer. This was no ordinary meeting, not for me at least.

After the initial introductions, Tom gave a brief overview of Quanser as a company, emphasizing our commitment to enhancing engineering educators around the world. Over the past 20+ years, more than 2,500 institutions have used Quanser solutions to innovate and educate. Due to the interdisciplinary nature of Control Systems and Mechatronics, our solutions have been put to work across a wide range of teaching and research applications, including:

  • Sustainable Energy: Wind Turbine, Solar Tracker...
  • Earthquake Engineering: ShakeTable I, II, III & Hexapod...
  • Biomedical Applications: Needle Insertion, Spinal Surgery, Laparoscopy, Rehabilitation…
  • Unmanned Systems: Air Vehicles, Ground Vehicles….
Following Tom, Jacob demonstrated a series of interesting teaching tools and processes he’s been developing at the University of Toronto. These new tools and processes will help engineering students learn much more effectively. In one of the demos, Jacob showed a virtual car simulator interfaced with 2x QET DC Motor Control Trainers. One of the QET motors represented the steering wheel, the other motor represented the engine of the car. The objective of the experiment was to first try and drive the virtual car using an input device (i.e. a joystick), then to design a controller which allows the virtual car to drive autonomously. Afterwards, students are tasked to see how their autonomous vehicle performed against their fellow classmates. Here's a really cool video of the demo, check it out:

After Jacob’s demo, a Director from the prominent Engineering Institution presented a concept they are currently exploring. Their engineering department is looking for ways to offer future students an even more immersive experiential learning environment. One point clearly emerged from these discussions: students today are more engaged than ever and eager to work on relevant challenges such as sustainable energy, earthquake engineering and haptic biomedical applications.

Over the course of the next few months and more, we will be exploring where Engineering Education is heading with much rigor. Stay tuned and be sure to leave your thoughts and comments on our LinkedIn discussion boards: Engineer A Better World & Real-Time Control, Robotic and Mechatronic Systems

Quote of the Day:
'Quanser is small enough to be quick and nimble, and big enough to be dangerously disruptive.' - Tom

Sunny Ray
Technology Evangelist
Academic Community Advisor

Thursday, September 15, 2011

How Quanser Is Helping Engineering Grads Become Global Engineers

Today it is essential that engineers work in a global environment. After all, their colleagues and assignments are located across many time zones and cultures, and the effective solutions they seek usually require a multi-disciplinary approach that can be applied anywhere in the world. All this poses a considerable challenge to engineering educators. In 2010, to help answer that challenge, Quanser partnered with a leading educational institution and put together a pilot program that teaches the diverse new skills a global engineer requires.

A Team Approach To Finding Open-Ended Solutions
The strategy involved helping senior students develop two new skill sets. The first involved:

  • basic organization and project planning
  • teamwork, focusing on personal interaction and respect for the opinions of others
  • improved communication, including written, oral, graphic, listening, digital and internet collaboration
The second set consisted of more specific engineering-related skills: modeling, control design, programming and mechanical design.

Quanser Partners with NYIT Faculty and Students
Quanser's partner in this enterprise is the New York Institute of Technology (NYIT). Together we defined the student project: design a mechanism that employs two Quanser SRV02 base units and a camera to create their own version of the 2 DOF Ball Balancer rotary motion experiment.

The students formed four teams, three at the NYIT's Manhattan campus and the one at the Old Westbury campus. Each team was tasked to come up with its own solution. The entire project was conducted through the senior year capstone course during the 2010-2011 academic year, with the process occurring in four distinct phases:
  • Phase 1 - Understanding: In October of 2010 the Quanser SRV02 was integrated into the Senior Design Project. The students installed Quanser hardware, software and cameras and using Quanser-developed course materials, they quickly became familiar with the SRV02 system.

  • Phase 2 - Project Planning: In December of 2010 the design objective was presented to the students, who then organized themselves in teams to solve the problem using Quanser SRV02 units.
  • Phase 3 - Design & Development: From January 2011 to March 2011 the student teams worked independently to develop, simulate and fabricate a controller design system to solve the assigned problem.
  • Phase 4 - Implementation & Evaluation: From April 2011 to May 2011 the students worked on validating, analyzing and reporting on their design solutions.
Quanser engineers worked with the NYIT engineering faculty as reviewers of each team's progress. Being so closely involved with students and their professors also helped our engineers to identify where the project's pedagogy and processes need to be refined. Quanser has made recommendations based on the feedback and outlined a series of "next steps" to make this a more effective experience. These steps are currently being implemented.

The Goal: Graduating Students With Global Engineering Skills
Over the long term the Global Engineering Project will likely evolve to teach comprehensive collaborative work, between teams, across campuses or across the world. Currently consideration is being given to involving students in China. This potential expansion, and continued refinement of the pedagogy over the 2011-2012 academic year and beyond, will bring us closer to ensuring that engineering schools will routinely be graduating students that can immediately meet the real-world engineering opportunities that await them. Stay tuned for the updates on the project!

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Quanser R&D Helps Enhance Safety in Conflict Zones

One of the most sensitive and important areas addressed by robotics research and development is in applications designed to reduce human risk in conflict situations, specifically the risk related to defending against the use of improvised explosive devices (IED). One mitigation strategy is smart robotics development employing stand-off detectors to permit surveillance and protection of vital points and key personnel.

The value of multi-disciplinary experience
Quanser has been chosen as a part of a Collaborative Research and Technology Initiative (CRTI) to complete a project on telerobotic IED neutralization. This project addresses substantial telerobotic-based improvements in a number of areas, including (i) responder performance through an integrated response and remote monitoring platform, (ii) pre- and post- blast investigations involving sample analysis and data collection, (iii) management with no manual input, and (iv) medical triage in hazard situations.

The potential to be remarkably effective
Quanser has been conducting research in the areas of haptics and telepresence as well as unmanned vehicles systems (UVS) control for several years. The introduction of haptics has the potential to shift the way all telepresence systems work for first responders. At the same time, the immersive telepresence capability allows for greater surveillance of vital points and key personnel.

The research is well underway
The research and development for the project have already started in various fields such as telerobotics, 3 D localization and mapping as well as unmanned vehicle control. As an initial step, a unilateral teleoperation setup is implemented between a Sensable's PHANTOM Omni and JACO arm by Kinova. The JACO arm was chosen for this project because of its light weight, being waterproof and silent, low power consumption and its high dexterity and reach.

Teleoperation setup with JACO Robot Arm and PHANTOM Omni device

Full joint-level open architecture access to the robotic arm is enabled through QUARC rapid prototyping software which can be used as a stand-alone research and teaching platform. Also, a realistic model of the arm is presented in QUARC visualization in order to test and implement various controllers.

Next steps include the design and implementation of bilateral and multilateral teleoperation using more than one JACO arms to perform a multi-arm teleoperation scheme. The project outcomes will improve preparedness, prevention, and response by alllowing first responders to stand back, investigate and neutralize dangerous situations.

Many applications will benefit from the developed technology, including medical robotics, micro assembly, remote hazardous material handling, resource exploration, sovereign arctic surveillance, and space explorations.

Monday, September 12, 2011

QUARC 2.2: 64-bit Platform Support for Enhanced Performance

In our August post about the soon-to-be-released QUARC 2.2 control software, I spoke about the significant reduction in model build time you could look forward to. Now I'd like to highlight another exciting new feature of QUARC 2.2: 64-bit platform support for the Microsoft Windows 7 operating system. This will result in greatly enhanced performance matched to the capabilities of the new 64-bit PCs. In other words, you will soon be able to build models and run Quanser hardware in Windows 64-bit.

Migrating or upgrading to QUARC 2.2 is even more worthwhile because we are offering it in both 32- and 64-bit versions. Your 32- or 64-bit computer will auto-select the right version. Should you be using two different targets - one a 32-bit and the other a 64-bit - there's still no problem. The QUARC host PC will be able to compile (or cross-compile, as the case may be) your model as required for each Windows target, be it a 32-bit or 64-bit. Searching for a 32-bit Windows 7 OS will be a thing of the past.

QUARC 2.2 has undergone extensive testing on the 64-bit Windows 7 system, and its release date is just around the corner. As a result, you can definitely look forward to overall improved performance and an enhanced user experience very soon.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Control Experts Meeting in Japan

In just a few days, control experts from around the world will meet in Japan for the SICE 2011 Conference. The annual meeting of the Japanese Society of Instrument and Control Engineers will take place September 13 - 18 at the prestigious Waseda University. Delegates will discuss the latest developments in a wide range of fields, from measurement and control to system analysis and design, along with their applications in mechatronics, smart robotics and unmanned systems.

Conference delegates will find a lot of interesting "toys" on display at Quanser's exhibit at SICE 2011. You will see a live demonstration of the Active Suspension system, representing hands-on teaching tools developed at Quanser to help engineering students master even the most advanced control theories. You can also learn about Quanser's open architecture robotics platforms or indoor unmanned vehicle system research platform, to name just a few, all of which can be valuable in experimental verifications of your theoretical designs.

If you are attending SICE 2011, stop by Quanser's exhibit to discuss how you can enhance your engineering lab and accelerate your research.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Formation Flying For Drones - How Far Has It Progressed?

Defence and Security organizations see unmanned air vehicles, or drones, as a great tool for a variety of surveillance applications. Technology currently being developed will allow drones to be linked into formations and survey vast amount of territory, assist in search and rescue missions and operate in conflict situations while achieving the same level of efficiency as manned aircraft. But before the drone formations can be deployed and operate with minimal human intervention, real-time control schemes must be developed and tested.

In their previous work, Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) scientists Dr. C.A. Rabbath and Dr. N. Levin focused on passivity-based formation control, developing the theory for controller design, and verifying it using numerical simulations. Now they have teamed with Dr. Jacob Apkarian, Quanser's founder and Chief Technological Officer, to implement the controller on an actual physical system and perform the experimental validation of the passivity-based formation control concept. At the recent 2011 AIAA Guidance, Navigation and Control Conference they presented a paper outlining the experimental results they achieved.

Using an indoor experimental test-bed consisting of Quanser's Qball-X4 unmanned quadrotor helicopters and Qbot ground vehicles, the researchers created a drone team consisting of followers and a leader. Key tests included autonomous drone formation coordination and mixed mobile robot - drone formation teaming. The results of the experiments indicate that a passivity-based formation control scheme produces cohesive formation motion and can be seamlessly integrated with a commercial off-the-shelf drone autopilot.

Click here to read the full paper titled "Experiments with a Passivity-based Formation Control System for Teams of Small Robotic Drones".

You can also visit Quanser's website to learn more about the Unmanned Vehicle Systems Lab, an indoor platform for teaching and research used in engineering departments worldwide.