Monday, March 26, 2012

The Six Stages of a FIRST Time Mentor

Beginning in January of this year, I had the opportunity to volunteer to mentor a FIRST Robotics team at St. Robert CHS. I had only a vague idea of what I was getting into, but the videos that I had see online seemed to be filled with manic high school students almost euphoric with excitement and passion for robotics. Anything that could get high school students that excited about learning about geeky things like programming, sensors and mechanical engineering was something I wanted to be a part of (spoiler alert: I’m a huge nerd).

A (very) short two months later, a robot was born and I had identified the six stages of mentoring a FIRST team:

Stage One – The elementary school dance: The high school dance is a ubiquitous analogy. Students and mentors grouped around a room, mostly keeping to the relative safety of our individual peers. Some brave students and mentors came together to dance around the topic of what the heck this robot was actually supposed to do...and how?
Quanser's engineeering and production mentors helped the project get off to a great start,
laying the foundation for the students to build on.
Stage Two – The sermon: The classic paradigm of teachers preaching to a class of students has existed for as long as time. Unfortunately, it has become so engrained in the educational psyche that old habits die hard. Having been intimidated by a room full of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed students, we mentors may have fallen back into our comfort zone. The beautiful part about FIRST, however, is that you can’t lecture for long. There’s work to be done. The build team and our crack production mentors went to work on getting a head start on the build, prompting the rest of the mentors to get our hands dirty.

Stage Three – Shock and awe: This stage was the real turning point for the mentors, and to a certain extent the project overall. As the students got down to work, we mentors started to realize just how talented, bright, and capable they were. I will never forget walking into the shop on a Saturday afternoon to help get the control system up and running, only to find out that it was already pretty much complete. As our confidence in the students grew, and the students’ confidence in themselves was reinforced, the project really took off as the students began to invest their hearts into the project.

The students quickly took over the project,
while the mentors stepped back into a supporting role.
Stage Four – Tool rack: As the students took over the project, we moved into the culminating stage of the build process. In this stage the students took an active role in the construction and design of key elements of the robot. At the same time we mentors began to take a more passive role: holding a tool here, lending a hand there, and only occasionally interjecting with a friendly piece of advice. I really started to feel like I was a part of their team, and that we were all in it together.

Stage Five – Pride: As the robot came together and “bag day” approached, I was really struck by the overwhelming pride I felt in what the students had achieved. I think that the team did an amazing job, and I’m proud to have been a part of it.

The students eventually took control of the project and became fully involved
 in the construction and design of key elements of the robot.
Stage Six – Repeat: As the competition day draws closer, talk around the Quanser office seems to be turning more and more to the subject to FIRST. Not a day goes by, it seems, without someone mentioning competition results, interesting robot designs, strategies, etc. I can’t wait until next year’s build, and I know the other mentors feel the same way too. Go 4001!

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Quanser Challenges Engineering Students to Create an Experiment to Teach Sustainable Engineering

--> Quanser recently announced sponsorship of a unique global design student competition, the Quanser Challenge, where engineering students devise an approach to teaching concepts in sustainable engineering.

To launch this competition, Quanser is collaborating with the Ibero-American Science and Technology Education Consortium (ISTEC), the Student Platform for Engineering Education Development (SPEED) and the International Federation of Engineering Education Societies (IFEES). Students entering the competition will be tasked with developing an experiment applied to solving challenges in sustainable engineering while enhancing the undergraduate-level learning experience. Specifically, students will be focused on developing this experiment as an extension of the QNET range of control experiments for the National Instruments’ ELVIS.

The winning entry could subsequently become a university-level Quanser teaching experiment used in engineering faculties around the world. This educational solution would better prepare thousands of engineering students to tackle real-world problems in sustainable engineering and make the prospect of a diverse range of future solutions in this field more viable.

“We’re betting that the global community of engineering students can channel their unique perspectives and youthful passion to create teaching tools that will help their peers develop skills that could literally save the planet, “says Paul Gilbert, Quanser’s CEO. “Their problem-solving capabilities are enormous and we want to help bring them to the surface.”

Tom Lee, Quanser’s Chief Education Officer is also anticipating the results of the competition. “We’ll get to work with some very bright young people who have both the energy and audacity to propose wonderfully creative if not outrageous ideas; so outrageous that they might actually work!”

The deadline for registration of design projects is April 1, 2012. Projects must be submitted by August 1, 2012. The winner will be announced September 1, 2012. Prizes include a trip to the World Engineering Education Forum, October 15 – 18, 2012 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the benefits that accrue from recognition as worldwide winners within the global engineering community.

For further information on contest guidelines and registration, visit

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Real Quanser Robot = Readiness for Real World Engineering

Dr. Stephen Mascaro of the University of Utah is focused on preparing his students to apply control theory to real-world applications.
Dr. Stephen Mascaro of the University of Utah wanted the students in his Robotic Control course to gain hands-on experience controlling a real robot. He also wanted to prepare his students to apply the control theory they were learning to real-world applications. Working with Quanser to develop a 2 DOF Serial Robot, he achieved both aims. Dr. Mascaro describes his work below. Watch the videos from his lab and see the robot in action for yourself.
This video shows Quanser's 2 DOF Serial Robot mimicking an industrial robot quickly
and repeatedly executing predefined trajectories.
“The first video mimics an industrial robot repeatedly executing predefined trajectories quickly and accurately, similar to placing chips on a circuit board," says Dr. Mascaro. "The faster the robot can place the chip while maintaining specified accuracy, the more the factory can increase their throughput.”

This video shows a master-slave teleoperation aimed at achieving the
precision required in surgery.
"The second video relates to surgical robots and shows a master-slave teleoperation aimed at achieving the precision required in surgery. Using a master - slave pair of robots, a doctor can manipulate the master robot using large scale motions, while the slave robot mimics the motions of the master on a smaller and more precise scale in order to perform the surgical operation, filtering out any vibrations or tremors from the doctor's motion. The forces experienced by the slave can be amplified and fed back to the master so the doctor can feel an enhanced version of what the slave robot is feeling.”

This video shows two robots using infrared sensors to interact as leader-follower.
In the real world, such an interaction would allow leader-follower robots
to travel over uncertain terrain.
“The third video applies to field robotics, in which two robots use infrared sensors to interact as leader-follower and travel together over uncertain terrain." Dr. Mascaro continues: "The slave robot must be capable of following its own trajectory, but should adjust its trajectory based on its relative distance from the master robot. Applications for this robot include any sort of sensing and detection in a difficult terrain or an inhospitable environment.”

Dr. Mascaro is pleased with what his robot control lab, with the new 2DOF Serial Robot, can offer his students. "We have a modern robotics lab that can provide all our students plenty of hands-on time with the robots," he says, "so they can more easily turn control theory into practice. As a result, my students are better prepared to tackle real-world applications and research in the future.”

If you have some innovative ideas to make your lab more engaging and relevant to the real world, tell us what you have in mind. Perhaps Quanser can help make it a reality.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Quanser to Sponsor Student Award at University of Waterloo 2012 Mechatronics Design Symposium

Quanser, a global leader in educational laboratory solutions for controls, mechatronics and robotics courses, is sponsoring the top prize at the University of Waterloo’s 2012 Mechatronics Design Symposium. The Design Symposium is a student competition and a project showcase for final year students in UofW’s Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering Program.

Joining the panel of judges are Dr. Amin Abdossalami, Control Systems Engineer at Quanser and Dr. Tom Lee, Quanser’s Chief Education Officer and a three-time alumnus of the Waterloo Mechanical Engineering program. Quanser will award a cash prize to recognize the most innovative student project. Judging criteria includes display of exceptional technical achievement in the conception, design and prototyping of innovative mechatronic systems, as well as commercialization potential. Dr. Lee will present the award on Quanser’s behalf. “I’m looking forward to the Design Symposium with great anticipation because the best of today’s engineering students are remarkably sophisticated, and I can’t wait to see what they’ve come up with.”

Quanser’s sponsorship of the student award reflects its commitment to enriching and enlivening engineering education, not only by designing hands-on educational solutions but also through support of student competitions and showcases. “Our company’s core principles all focus on helping engineering students learn more deeply,” says Dr. Lee.

The Design Symposium will take place on Monday, March 19th, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. in the Main Hall of the Davis Center Library on the University of Waterloo campus in Waterloo, Ontario.

Twenty-four exhibits will be on display within such categories as Robotics, Autonomous Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Biomedical Applications, Reconfigurable Service Systems, and Sports, Entertainment and Virtual Reality. The event is open to the public. If you cannot attend, just check our blog later - we will bring more details from the event.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Quanser Helps a Client to Significantly Elevate UAV’s Performance

Recently a longtime Quanser client asked us to help them enhance the capabilities of the Hexakopter –XL, a third party unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designed by Mikrokopter in Germany. Our Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) team received the Hexakopter –XL in kit form and quickly assembled it. While similar in some ways to our own Qball UAV, the Hexakopter, as its name implies, has six rotors, instead of the four on the Qball.

The client chose the 6-rotor Hexakopter because they needed a UAV that could carry heavier payloads than traditional four rotor aerial vehicles. This Hexakopter model is rated to carry a load of up to one kilogram. While many in the hobbyist market would adapt UAVs like this to perform aerial photography functions, our client’s mandate to us was to turn it into a heavy-lifting autonomous flying robot!
Quanser Systems and Control Engineer John Daly  performs a last-minute check
on the enhanced, third party, 6-rotor Hexakopter.
Once assembled, we put the Hexakopter through its paces to familiarize ourselves with its capabilities. Then we went to work enhancing it to suit the client’s needs. Our first task was to refine its controls. Thanks to QUARC real-time control prototyping software and Quanser’s data acquisition hardware, we outfitted the Hexakopter with a HiQ avionics board, just like the Qball. This allowed us to make use of much of the Qball’s control systems technology and fly the Hexakopter completely autonomously in an indoor environment.

We then proceeded to our second functional enhancement – enabling it to plot a destination. Off the shelf, the Hexakopter comes with the ability to stabilize its own attitude. This means it is able to ensure that it remains roughly level when it is flying, but it is not able to travel to a particular location. By using our own QUARC rapid prototyping control design software, we added this function to the Hexakopter. With this added destination-seeking capability, the Hexakopter will be turned into a fully autonomous flying vehicle that can travel from point A to point B to point C and so on.
A view of the Quanser HiQ avionics board that helped enhance the capabilities
of our client's Hexakopter.
Working with real-time control design available through QUARC software, and adapting aspects of our proprietary Qball hardware, Quanser control systems engineers played a key role in extending the functionality of the 6-rotor UAV. Our client’s Hexakopter now features advanced functionality and design that is able to satisfy their higher expectations. Who says every task has to begin with a blank sheet of paper! Check back with this blog in the near future when we tell you about our upcoming autonomous flight results.

- John Daly

John Daly is a Systems and Control Engineer at Quanser headquarters in Markham, Ontario, Canada

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Quanser Appoints First Channel Manager Dedicated Exclusively to India and South Asia

Quanser is pleased to announce the appointment of Sunny Ray as Quanser’s first Channel Manager for South Asia. This appointment not only reflects the growth and vitality of engineering education in the region, but demonstrates Quanser’s commitment to supplying full service and support to the Indian and South Asian academic engineering community.

Sunny Ray (far right), Quanser's new and very first Channel Manager for South Asia, with visitors to the Quanser Center of Excellence at the College of Engineering, Pune, India.
Sunny holds a BSc. in Electrical Engineering. His previous roles at Quanser have included Inside Sales Manager, North America Academic Solutions Advisor and Latin America Channel Manager. Consequently, he possesses a strong technical understanding of Quanser solutions. In his previous roles within Quanser Sunny assisted top universities around the globe and enabled engineering educators and researchers to tackle grand challenges in the field of controls, robotics and mechatronics.

Sunny is ready to work with the academic engineering community in his region:

  • To help choose lab equipment for your Control, Mechatronics, Robotics, Aerospace, or Civil Engineering courses
  • To provide samples of course materials that come with all Quanser lab solutions
  • To arrange demonstrations of experiments that improve learning outcomes
Both Quanser and Sunny look forward to working closely with leading edge educators to attract, retain and graduate a new generation of engineering students in your country.

Sunny can be contacted at

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Winning in Education

In many ways, those of us who are active in the many current initiatives in improving engineering education are united on one particular idea: a curriculum over-dependent in conventional theory-based lecture format cannot provide a sufficiently rich enough experience to prepare today's students for tomorrow's engineering challenges. And in our efforts, we have posed numerous enrichments and alternatives. In recent years one of the most popular ways of injecting vitality into education has been the student competition. Students, either individually or as a team, compete to achieve a complex engineering task. Arguably some of the most exciting and effective among competitions are those that draw participants from multiple universities and even across international borders and then pit them against a really wicked problem. Some of the most prominent examples include the World Solar Challenge for cars with intercontinental range that run exclusively on solar power, and the US Department of Energy's Solar Decathalon to design a cheap, comfortable house that generates more power than it consumes.

Quanser has always been a proud supporters of such competitions. In terms of competition sponsorship, this year is turning out to be the most active ever in our company's history. We are mentoring and sponsoring our own FIRST Robotics team (Team 4001 RetroRams in case you are interested), we have established the Quanser Award in the University of Waterloo senior mechatronics project competition, and very recently, we, in collaboration of the Ibero-American Science and Technology Education Consortium (ISTEC) and the Student Platform for Engineering Education Development (SPEED), launched the Quanser Challenge. A global student competition that presents a real-world engineering challenge to students. For this year, the theme is the design of experimental devices for teaching sustainable engineering.

Tom Lee, Quanser's Cheif Education Officer, considers attempting the Quanser Student Design Challenge to design an experimental device for teaching sustainable engineering using a Quanser QNET trainer board for the National Instruments ELVIS.
Given some fairly constrained technical specifications on form, dimension, power available, and factoring in cost and ease of manufacture and commercialization potential, students will be attempting to develop innovative ideas for a new generation product that could potentially become a future Quanser product. Of course there is a prize.… a trip to Buenos Aires in October to attend and be celebrated at the annual World Engineering Education Forum (WEEF). But the real prize will be in the experience gained in unraveling a very complex engineering and business problem. The first obvious challenge is to define what "sustainable engineering" actually is! Yes everyone talks about it these days but there seems to be as many definitions of the term as there are people mentioning it. Then there will be human factors such as designing for engaging learning experiences. The business factors for global adoption must also be addressed. And after all of this, you still need to actually figure out the nuts and bolts - or the resistors and capacitors - of the design. A student team that actually manages to resolve all of these complex elements are winners in every sense of the word.

Who else wins? Well, we do. If this works, Quanser gets the inside track on a great new idea and we'll get to work with some very bright young people who have both the energy and audacity to propose wonderfully creative if not outrageous ideas.… so outrageous that it might actually work. When you are 49 years old, often floating haplessly on a vast sea of client emails, technical debates, Outlook reminders, management meetings, and the all too frequent calls on your mobile including "Dad.… I know you're in Markham, 120km away from home but I forgot my science project in the basement and the presentation is in 30 minutes", it's challenging to get your mind into that innovation zone. So getting the global community of bright young students to expend their mental energies seems so sensible to me. Heck, I'll go to Buenos Aires to shake the winning hand.

We're actually very excited about the prospects of the Quanser Challenge. It's one thing simply to hand over money as a sponsor for a worthy activity. But actually working directly with the competitors and having a real stake and philosophical interest in a event will be a winning experience for all of us at Quanser. In the end, we hope that this competition leaves another cohort of students with a sense of genuine achievement and satisfaction, and another profound memory of their time as students.
- Tom Lee
As Chief Education Officer at Quanser, Tom Lee is focused on spearheading the development of Quanser's global academic community. He is closely involved with Quanser's technology and solution development process and the company's partner and alliance programs. He holds a PhD in Mechanical Engineering, and an MASc and BASc in Systems Design Engineering from the University of Waterloo.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Partnership helped our engineers speed development

Partnerships are important factors in allowing us to develop leading edge teaching and research tools for engineering educators. Our partnership with MapleSoft is a prime example of this. A case in point occurred when we were developing the Qball-X4 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), an experimental indoor platform for research in UAV control and design. Quanser engineers relied on MapleSim™ modeling and simulation software to explore the dynamics of the gyroscopic effects of the spinning parts of the QBall. They did so rigorously, and in a surprisingly short amount of time. Read more about how our engineers used MapleSim™ here.

Qball-X4 model developed using MapleSim.
Working closely with our partners and their products is something we do every day. National Instruments is another valued Quanser partner and their LabVIEW™ software is growing in popularity among the tools that our engineers use for controls development. We’ll reveal more about how LabVIEW is being used for controls development in upcoming issues of our monthly newsletter. Till then we tip our hat to MapleSoft, National Instruments and all our partners and look forward to working with them further to serve the needs of the engineering education community.