Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Discover the Quanser Rapid Control Prototyping Toolkit at NIWeek 2012

If you are planning to attend NIWeek 2012 in Austin, Texas, please join Quanser at the Academic Forum on Monday, August 6 as we unveil the Rapid Control Prototyping (RCP) Toolkit, a new add-on for NI LabVIEW. Tom Lee, Quanser Chief Education Officer will join David Wilson, NI Director of Academic Programs at a keynote presentation to demonstrate how LabVIEW and RCP Toolkit can literally drive a video-game-like control lab.

If you miss Quanser's presentation and demonstration during the keynote, you can experience the RCP Toolkit and "test drive" the new control lab concept at our Academic Forum display. Or stop by Quanser's booth in the exhibit hall (August 7 - 9) to speak with our engineers about the new Q1-cRIO module for NI CompactRIO.

We look forward to introducing you to Quanser's newest software and hardware tools that are fully integrated with National Instruments technology to help enhance undergraduate engineering education and keep students motivated.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

ACC 2012: Great Presentations, Passionate Debate

I just got back from an exciting week at the 2012 American Control Conference (ACC 2012). This year, a lot of ACC control enthusiasts were gathering for the first time outside the U.S. in Montreal, Canada, a few blocks away from the jazz festival. Working at Quanser gives our engineers the opportunity to attend such prestigious conferences as ACC, a one-of-a-kind gathering for any controls geeks and research-oriented people. I tried to divide my time between the interesting conversations at the tradeshow and the heated session presentations.

The Quanser Booth drew plenty of traffic and interest.
The Quanser booth at ACC 2012 saw some of the largest traffic in recent years. Some of the most well received and crowded presentations at our booth were given by Professor Nejat Olgac from the Mechanical Engineering Department of the University of Connecticut. Dr. Olgac and his former student, Dr. Rudy Cepeda-Gomez, now a professor in Colombia, have been passionately working on an interesting research topic for the past few years: time delayed systems and their applications to vibration absorption mechanisms and bioengineering. Their research has resulted in several published papers and patents.

Dr. Nejat Olgac is shown presenting his work to Dr. Karl Astrom.

This year at our booth, Dr. Olgac and Dr. Gomez were presenting their novel framework for stability analysis of systems with multiple time delays. Their method is called “the cluster treatment of characteristic roots” or CTCR. It is based on two fundamental propositions. The first proposition claims the boundedness of the imaginary roots of any nonlinear characteristic equation. The second proposition claims invariance of the crossing tendencies of these imaginary roots in the s-plane.
This approach has enabled them to determine the closed-loop stability region of Quanser’s Inverted Pendulum in the domain of time delays for two of the states of the system. After deriving the theoretical stable regions using CTCR for Quanser’s Inverted Pendulum, they demonstrated experimentally that increasing the delay parameters would still result in some combinations of parameters that would maintain the stability of the system. Their results were hotly debated among professors and students.

Attendees were deeply engaged with the presentations and discussed them with great passion.
As a second demo experiment at our booth we were presenting our Iron Bird concept for teaching and researching unmanned aerial systems. Over the course of many years of research and development at Quanser, our engineers have realized that Iron Bird is a crucial and incremental step towards deploying a fully functional and stable unmanned aerial system. The Iron Bird we presented at ACC 2012 consists of three independently instrumented and actuated gimbals adopted from Quanser’s 3 DOF Gyroscope. A Quanser HiQ Gumstix sits at the center of the gimbals as part of a larger hardware-in-the-loop simulation. The gimbals can exhibit different roll, pitch, and yaw motions which are measured by the IMU onboard HiQ and are used inside the visualized simulation of the Quanser Qball. The premise is that once the students fully test and design their controllers on the HiQ unit, they can detach that unit and mount it on a real UGV or UAV for full deployment. This demo was well received among the unmanned systems community at the ACC.

Quanser's Mahyar Fotoohi is shown discussing the Iron Brid concept with an ACC attendee. At right, in the background, a Quanser 2 DOF Helicopter is seen.
Quanser’s 2 DOF Helicopter Experiment could be found a few centimeters away from our Iron Bird demo, yet it wasn’t in our booth. It was actually demonstrated by our colleagues from National Instruments (NI) in their booth. The 2 DOF Helicopter has been one of Quanser’s popular experiments not only for teaching but also for research. At the NI booth the experiment was controlled under LabVIEW™, using NI CompactRIO. Did I mention that this experiment will have a comprehensive LabVIEW-based curriculum developed at Quanser too?

During the night, my Quanser colleague Pasha Javid and I were spending our time on a secret R&D demo we were planning to demonstrate at the ACC. We had “stolen” a Jaco robot from our R&D department. Using an iPhone, QUARC® and LabVIEW™, we were trying to implement the chicken head concept in a matter of a few hours. After all, rapid controls prototyping under LabVIEW™ and QUARC® is a given at Quanser. We wrote the program partially on our way to Montreal in the car and partially at the hotel.
Pasha has been pushing for this demo for years and when Peter Martin, another Quanser colleague, brought up the idea again, we just could not resist making it. In the picture below, the robot arm is not grounded and can be freely moved in the air. The iPhone at the end-effector sends back the accelerometer and gyro data to the controller in the PC. The controller then tries to maintain the orientation of the end-effector.

Quanser's Director of Business Development Keith Blanchet is shown testing the Jaco robot arm with an iPhone at the end-effector.  With him are Quanser colleagues Pasha Javid, Applications Engineer, and Mahyar Fotoohi, Academic Solutions Advisor, Canada.
I should mention that the Quanser booth was very well-decorated with demos and educational materials this year, thanks to our Marketing team. The picture below shows Dr. K. Tanaka from Japan, who wanted to have a photo in front of our booth.

Dr. K. Tanaka from Japan is shown with the Jaco robot arm at the Quanser booth.

Before I wrap things up, I’d like to highlight some of the presentations that made effective use of Quanser plants, workstations and experiments:

L. Acho and G. Pujol from Universitat Politecnica de Catalunya, Barcelona, Spain have employed Quanser’s Shake Table and the Active Mass Damper experiment to design and validate their adaptive Hinfinity controller. This robust controller is composed of two terms: a linear term (robust dynamic control) designed based on Linear Matrix Inequality (LMI), and an adaptive term (sign function of velocity). Using Lyapunov theory they have proved BIBO-stability of the closed-loop system.

R. Serhal and H. Khalil from Michigan State University  have investigated an interesting problem: to apply Extended High Gain Observer (EHGO) to Underactuated Mechanical Systems. They used Quanser’s Rotary Inverted Pendulum as a perfect example of an under actuated system. The experiment was used in a gantry control mode and the benefits of using EHGO for disturbance cancellation was demonstrated.

 Abbas Chamseddine et Al. from Concordia University proposed a flatness-based trajectory planning for a Quanser Qball actuator and system constraints are considered. They have implemented and compared Linear Quadratic Regulator and Sliding Mode Controller. The latter proves to be more suitable for aggressive maneuvers due to the fact that it is based on the nonlinear model of the Qball.

M. Odelga et Al. from Ecole Centrale de Nantes, France, have proposed a new autopilot control scheme and tested it experimentally using Quanser’s 3 DOF Helicopter. Travel and elevation controllers are based on adaptive sliding mode control. According to the authors, this class of controllers keeps the robustness feature of sliding mode while reducing the chattering by online adaptation of the control gains. What is more interesting is that the adaptive version of sliding mode control does not require any knowledge of uncertainties/perturbations.

D. A. Dirksz et Al. from Eindhoven University, Netherlands, described the standard notch filter in the port-Hamiltonian (PH) framework. They investigate their results using simulations that are based on an experimental manipulator from Quanser. A notch filter blocks signals of specific frequencies. By having a PH description of the notch filter, it can be interconnected (in a passivity-preserving way) to passive nonlinear systems and preserve the passivity property. The analysis and control of nonlinear systems can benefit from this passivity property. They also investigate the inverse notch filter which passes signals of specific frequency.

 Torsten Liesk et Al. from McGill University have developed a controller suite for an autonomous, finless airship. They used Quanser’s ALTAV MkII for testing and validation of their proposed control scheme. Their controller is capable of autonomous way-point tracking and hovering. Investigating and understanding of the impact of wind gusts on the control performance is the subject of their future research.

After the presentations there was time to socialize and continue discussions.  Shown here are Quanser's Pasha Javid and Amin Abdossalami, with Dr. Karl Astrom and a guest. 

In conclusion, ACC 2012 was a great reunion and featured a wide range of presentations and hotly debated control topics – everything you’d want in a controls conference.  I came away thinking that ACC discussions and papers are trending towards applications-based and hands-on control. The trend is a welcome one and certainly aligns with our guiding pedagogical principles at Quanser.  No wonder I can’t wait till next year’s conference!

- Amin Abdossalami

Amin Abdossalami is a Control Systems Engineer at Quanser

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Winning Community

Attendees who stopped by the Quanser Booth at last month’s ASEE 2012 Conference in San Antonio, Texas not only saw our workstations on display—they got a chance to fill in a ballot, learn about the new, upcoming Engineering Community website that Quanser is sponsoring, and win a Kobo VOX eReader.  
The lucky winner of this remarkable eReader is Syed Rashree, of  DeVry University.  Congratulations, Syed!

The winner of Quanser's Community Draw at the ASEE 2012 Conference is
Syed Rashree of DeVry University.  Congratulations to Syed! 

Quanser’s Global Engineering Leadership Community website will be coming online later this fall. By joining this community, you’ll be a winner as well.  That’s because you’ll enjoy significant opportunities to exchange information and collaborate with peers around the globe. We hope it will also help you discover new ways to support and grow your professional interests.

We’ll tell you more in the coming months. For now, stay tuned to this blog and look for your opportunity to tour this new online community site focused on advancing engineering education and research.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Crossing the Chasm

In many ways, Quanser is in the midst of an epic business challenge as we systematically transition from our hard-earned reputation as the company with the best open-architecture control system plants, to the company delivering effective, practical technology solutions for a broad range of critical problems in modern engineering education and research. Last week at the American Society of Engineering Education (ASEE) annual conference in San Antonio, Texas, the company debuted its new generation of solution concepts built on our core technology platform and generated a lot of buzz in a typically, well-behaved conference.

Business folks will use the term “Crossing the Chasm[1]” in reference to the challenges that technology companies face as they strive to grow from a small company surviving on the vision of “early adopters” who intuitively understand the benefit and value of a new technology, to a large diversified company that has figured out how to transform a unique new technology to a more richer offering that appeals to a broader audience – “the majority”. Companies who successfully do this cross the proverbial chasm. The reality is most small technology companies fail to do this and indeed they crash and burn in that same chasm.
Dr. Tom Lee, Quanser's Chief Education Officer addresses the audience at the Quasner Innovation Hub and outlines the pedagogy and technology behind the Quanser Driving Simulator.

Prior to joining Quanser last year, I had seen the Quanser exhibits at previous ASEE conferences and, in general, was impressed by the overall creativity and richness of the presentation. But definitely, this year, our presence was markedly different in both tone and impact.

Quanser had two primary exhibits. The first was the big red display that usually adorns the conferences we attend. But the most memorable exhibit was the Quanser Innovation Hub: a large theater area highlighting the creative application of new technology to enhance engineering education. This year, Quanser focused on the Quanser Driving Simulator (QDS) that mapped an exciting race car simulation experience to a rigorous Hardware In the Loop (HIL) framework using Quanser hardware and software and LabVIEW™ software from National Instruments.

As a conference attendee puts the QDS through its paces, Quanser's Derry Cyrmble outlines her real-time progress with engaging Hardware-in-the-Loop race car simulation.
The audience was presented with an overview of the pedagogy and technology of the system and then was invited to take a test drive, which challenged their driving ability (the fun part) and their engineering intuition (the rigorous part). The drivers with the best lap times at the end of the conference were rewarded with gifts and the eternal adoration of their peers!

You couldn’t miss the spectacle. It was one of the largest displays at the conference. It had a genuine NASCAR racing car as a part of the display, and every square inch was decorated to support the theme of an exciting autorace. The visuals notwithstanding, the most impressive quality of the Innovation Hub was audience engagement. As expected, the audience enjoyed both the thought-provoking formal presentation and the hands-on competition. What we didn’t expect was the raw emotional response of many individuals who really took the challenge to heart.
There were many who returned to the display to take a second, or third drive. Some dragged their colleagues to the Hub, not only take a test drive, but to show them the rich education potential of the system. Many kept popping back in simply to check the emerging lap times to ensure that they were still competitive. In the end a young student won the grand prize. But he didn’t win because he was a video game wizard with years spent in his teen-cave in his parents’ basement, honing his game control skills. He won because he augmented his natural gaming skills with real engineering insight by manually tuning the vehicle dynamics parameters to give him a competitive edge. Yes, this was not only legal but encouraged. When he noticed that others were catching up, he pestered Quanser resident automotive simulation expert Peter Martin on the meaning and influence of the core engineering parameters… in other words, he used engineering concepts to win in a competitive situation. We couldn’t have asked for a better validation of the educational principles of the QDS.

The Quanser Innovation Hub drew enthusiastic crowds through all three days of the conference.

From a business perspective, what we experienced with the Innovation Hub is very much the kind of thing you do to help a company cross the chasm. Creatively reconfiguring abstract technology to one that intuitively connects with critical challenges that your constituents face. And the positive reaction we received from the audience definitely bodes well for the future. In our case, however, we actually had a double chasm to cross. I often remark about the chasms in the university curriculum where tradition has yet to catch up to modern reality. One of the biggest among such curricular chasms is the one between the high school experience and the first year university or freshman experience in undergraduate engineering.

Various organizations have done a remarkable job in raising the awareness of engineering and other technical professions. If you look at the prevalence of robotics activities or technology-themed TV series, a generation of students who are leaving high school with energy and enthusiasm about a future career in engineering, we have an unprecedented opportunity as a society to nurture the next generation of leaders. Once they get onto campus however, all too many students are “welcomed” with an intense mix of classical mathematics, science, programming, along with generally dry and abstract treatments of the foundational techniques of engineering. Consequently, we have alarming dropout rates from engineering programs. In many ways, a large number of students fall off the freshman cliff and into the chasm.

Academic Solutions Advisor Leor Grebler talks with one of the many attendees who dropped by the Quanser Booth in the Exhibit Hall. 

The QDS, from a pedagogical perspective, takes a bold step in helping students cross this particular chasm. Part of the story we told at the Innovation Hub was that of using strong applications properly integrated with real engineering hardware systems to truly motivate students. Not just in the control systems courses in their senior year but right into the freshman curriculum. “Let them do real engineering from day one!” is the message, and we at Quanser, believe that modern technology has all of the flexibility needed to bring advanced, hands-on enrichment to the freshman experience in a way that is motivating and conceptually reinforcing. Motivation can come from very emotional elements like fun and familiarity. In contrast, the same fun application also does a great job in introducing some very serious concepts in measurement, data analysis, modeling, and control. In this sense, fun and motivation are part of the framework that we can use to finally build a bridge across that curriculum chasm.

I have been a part of countless conference exhibits in my career and I must say that the Quanser ASEE exhibits were the most enjoyable and fulfilling for me. As a business veteran of 25 years, I sensed that the company had reached some very significant milestones. As someone immersed in the education scene, and as a parent of teenage children, I sensed that some very important concepts have now been introduced to a broad audience and the hard work of discussing, refining, and deploying these great new ideas can now begin in collaboration with our academic partners. For a brief few days, I completely forgot about the Alamo in San Antonio, and San Antonio became the center of the education universe.

- 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.

[1] Geoffrey A. Moore, Crossing the Chasm: Marketing and Selling High-Tech Products to Mainstream Customers, Harper Collins, 2002.