Friday, May 24, 2013

A Strong Belief In Hands-On Engineering Brings Quanser and FIRST Together Again

One of our favourite outreach programs is the annual FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC).  Every year we get involved and participate as individual mentors, judges, and overall as a corporate sponsor.

Why? We agree wholeheartedly with their mission: to inspire young people to be science and technology leaders by engaging them in exciting, mentor-based programs that build science, engineering and technology skills.

Last month Dr. Tom Lee, Quanser’s Chief Education Officer, blogged about his recent experience as a FIRST judge advisor, saying it renewed his faith in the younger generation’s inquisitive spirit and sheer engineering skills. Now two Quanser engineers, Peter Martin and Gilbert Lai, talk about their experiences as FIRST mentors this year. Peter has helped mentor the St. Robert Catholic High School team in Thornhill, Ontario for the past two years and Gilbert, who has just joined Quanser, has been mentoring the St. Mildred’s-LightbournGirls School team in Oakville, Ontario for the past three years.  Peter and Gilbert recently got together to discuss their mentoring experiences.

Q:  Before we start, what was the FIRST challenge this year?
Peter: As always, FIRST has an individual component and a three-team alliance component.  Individual school teams competed in building and controlling robots that shot Frisbees into targeted openings for individual awards, which was a lot of fun.  The three-team alliances were formed at the competition to cooperate as a team to achieve the highest possible team score based  on their frisbee shooting abilities plus a special challenge in which the robots had to climb a pyramid.

Quanser's Peter Martin  found the students he mentored at St. Robert High School were quite adept at building and programming their robot. He helped them stay simple and follow a well-thought out design and development process. 
Q:  Outline how you mentored your particular school.
Gilbert:  St. Mildred’s had been in the FIRST competition for many years and I’ve been mentoring them for the past three.  The first thing to note about the St. Mildred girls is that they are very quick learners.  They went from being unsure how to assess a problem and map it out, to identifying and solving problems on their own, without me.  Basically I helped them learn critical thinking, problem solving and project management skills. But their other mentors and I all agree that the girls taught us much more than we taught them.  They already had advanced soft skills in working together as a team and seeking consensus for decision-making.

That helped as they overcame some big challenges. The girls built their robot in spite of significant technical limitations. The school doesn’t have a dedicated workshop and the girls had to improvise and work around that.  It was inspiring and an eyeopener for me.  They outperformed all my expectations.

Peter:  This was only the second year that St. Robert entered a team and my second year helping to mentor them.  So there were some significant differences in our experiences.  For one thing, there’s a great machine shop at St. Robert, so we didn’t have that problem. 

Much of what I did was help the St. Robert team establish the teamwork and organizational skills that St. Mildred’s excelled at.  I helped them stay simple and follow a design and development process.  They learned to break down the project into sub-challenges to build the individual robot components, to be rigorous about documentation and passing along skills to new team members. They also started doing CAD design before bringing everything together to integrate all the parts onto the whole.

I expected to be heavily involved in helping them with software programming, but they often accomplished their work in LabVIEW and Java before I even got there; they just did it themselves.  Quite often I found they didn’t need me.  They took ownership for the project and plowed ahead on their own.

As mentor for St. Mildred's School FIRST Robotics team, Gilbert Lai found the students to possess remarkable ability to work together as a team.  He was struck by how quickly  they learned to ask the right questions and assumed complete ownership of their project. 
Q:  What did the students get out of their involvement with FIRST?
Gilbert:  At St. Mildred’s, the students matured very quickly.  They went from not knowing what they didn’t know to identifying a problem, to finding the right tool or person to address it.  They learned what questions to ask to advance a project.  And they took complete ownership of the project; even the younger students were eventually unafraid to be involved, by getting their hands on the power tools and driving the robots around for testing and competition. 

Peter:  This was a real coming of age year for the St. Robert team.  They encountered a lot more technical challenges than in years past and that was good, because they learned what to do when things don’t go according to plan.  So this was excellent real-world engineering experience, I think.  Overall they also learned how to do engineering as opposed to just doing exercises on paper.  They applied their skills to actually build something that was supposed to work.  They used wrenches and power drills to put parts together.  And they learned why we test things and how to refine things before we get to the finished product. Students coming out of FIRST know it all, everything from using a screwdriver to the specifics of sensor integration.

Q:  Why does Quanser partner with FIRST?
Peter:  We’re passionate about engineering and want to share that passion with students no matter what their age.  Quanser exists to advance engineering education, to help graduate a new generation of engineers with two key abilities: first, to be industry-ready and bring real hands-on engineering experience to the working world; and second, to have the passion and motivation to innovate new solutions to engineering’s grand challenges.

Our methodology says that learning needs to have a hands-on component to be effective.  In other words, a good engineering education starts on paper and continues in the workshop. It involves planning and teamwork, motivating applications, software design, hardware-in-the-loop, prototyping, testing and refining. That’s what the kids participating in FIRST are doing, and that’s why we’re excited to partner with FIRST. 

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Balancing motivation with the rigorous traditions of engineering

At this year's ECEDHA Annual Conference Spotlights, Quanser's Chief Education Officer Dr. Tom Lee asked an important question: Can engineering theory ever be fun? If you are interested in the answer, watch the 15 min presentation from the conference:

Quanser has been collaborating with leading institutions to develop  hands-on labs that offer a more industrially-relevant and motivating experience. A key objective is the balancing of the motivation -- the fun -- with the rigorous traditions of engineering. The core of the solution is a rich mapping of realistic engineering workflows that connects the theory to simulation, to real data and hardware, to design objectives. To make things more interesting, the system introduces the students to the engineering concepts through a highly visual, immersive, video game-like environment while maintaining the conceptual connection to engineering methodology and applications. Dr. Lee illustrated the techniques and presented case studies, including control systems and freshman computing courses.

Friday, May 17, 2013

QUBE-Servo Courseware Can Be Adjusted to Enhance Control Courses

As regular readers of this blog know, Quanser has just introduced the QUBE™-Servo, our new, low cost, integrated rotary servo experiment that gives professors a cost-effective way to teach introductory controls. But with the compact QUBE-Servo, we are also introducing a brand new way of delivering the Quanser courseware that accompanies our experiments. 

This new way involves a modular and topic-oriented approach that acknowledges that every professor’s controls course is different. It allows a professor to select any experiment within the provided courseware that they find relevant to the control topic they’re teaching, and insert it anywhere within their existing controls course. Instead of tying a professor to a prescribed path where one experiment must follow another in a predetermined sequence, the QUBE-Servo’s modular courseware gives professors the opportunity to enhance their courseware to best suit their individual course and their students. Of course, professors still have the option of teaching the experiments in sequence pre-defined by Quanser if they wish. 

New Application Lab Improves the Learning Experience 
A special feature of the courseware is an application lab, a segment that applies a control topic students have learned to a real-life control application. In this way the theory they studied will come to life as a real-world system they can relate to. For example, once students have progressed through a lab sequence centred around speed control, they can apply their new skills to the problem of automotive cruise control. This application gives students an immediate appreciation for the relevance of the topics and methods that they are studying.

Diverse Teaching Materials and Rich Media Enhance Courses and Reduce Prep Time
The ABET-aligned courseware includes a wealth of teaching material: QUBE-Servo control experiments with theoretical and practical hands-on components,  mathematical system models, lecture slides, ABET assessment and a courseware outline, to assist professors in adapting the courseware to professors’ syllabuses and additional content related to engineering education and research.

To save professors prep time and make the QUBE-Servo teaching materials even more convenient to use, we developed a comprehensive textbook mapping guide. It allows professors to match topics within the QUBE-Servo courseware to specific chapters from the most popular control engineering textbooks in use today, such as Control Systems Engineering by Norman S. Nise and Modern Control Engineering by K. Ogata.
The mix and match, rich media QUBE-Servo courseware can be easily accessed
and adapted to professors' individual controls courses. 

QUBE-Servo courseware is offered in many popular digital formats such as PDFs, Powerpoint files, Rich Text Format (RTF) files, and LaTeX files. The RTF, LaTeX and Powerpoint files are open, so instructors can simply copy and paste content into their own course notes and lectures.

The low cost QUBE-Servo rotary servo experiment offers engineering educators a smart, cost-effective way to teach controls to undergraduates. Its mix and match, rich media courseware adds to its value. They work together to enhance a professors’ effectiveness, and at the same time demonstrate Quanser’s continuing commitment to offering engineering educators the comprehensive controls solutions their students need.

Download the courseware sample to learn what topics you can teach using the QUBE-Servo experiment.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Helping Students Experience Engineering

National Instruments is well-known for building high quality I/O tools and graphical programming technologies that serve engineers and scientists around the world.  Quanser is well-known for its expertise in creating plants, models and controls experiments that engineering students can interact with.

What happens when the two companies put their heads together?  Simple. Students "go beyond the equation" and actually experience engineering.  Watch as Dave Wilson, National Instruments’ Director of Academic and Corporate Marketing, explains.

Friday, May 10, 2013

New Quanser Staff Member Helps Align Product Development and Marketing

Abdullah Dhooma spends his working day speaking two languages: engineering and marketing. As Quanser’s new Product Marketing Engineer, his specialized “language” skills are employed to co-ordinate communication across different departments and working groups inside and outside the company. He is closely involved with Quanser products at every stage of the development, sales and marketing cycles. Abdullah also acts as a bridge between Quanser and National Instruments as the two companies grow their partnership and offer new instructional and research solutions to academic engineering labs.

Abdullah Dhooma, Quanser's new Product Marketing Engineer, makes a presentation   introducing the our newest product, the fully integrated QUBE-Servo  Rotary Servo Experiment, during the recent Quanser Distributor Conference.
Abdullah completed a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical and Computer Engineering and an MBA at Ryerson University. He is a licensed Professional Engineer in Canada, and has also earned Project Management Professional (PMP) certification. Abdullah joins Quanser with 10 years of experience as a product and business manager at a company responsible for building part of the Canadian weather station of the Phoenix Mars Lander.

A tinkerer by nature, Abdullah was a computer enthusiast and Internet user at a very early age.  So his path to becoming an engineer was a logical one. As he puts it, “It’s who I am.  I love the problem-solving aspect of engineering.”  When he’s not helping to guide the development and marketing of Quanser’s engineering education solutions, he spends his time with his family as well as reading and playing golf. 

Friday, May 3, 2013

How QUARC Helps Professors Advance Their Research

What is the key advantage that professors get from using QUARC® rapid control prototyping software in their research? It’s simple - speed. QUARC allows them to accelerate design and achieve their research goals in much less time, whether they’re working in haptics, robotics, unmannedvehicles or other related areas.

The fact is QUARC seamlessly integrates with Simulink® and takes the traditional design-to-implementation interface toolset to new levels. As a result, researchers experience more functionality and more development flexibility, all geared towards improved real-time testing and performance.

All around the world, academic researchers are using QUARC to quickly turn ideas into prototypes, saving themselves months, and in some cases years, of development time. In today’s time and budget-constrained academic research environment, that’s an advantage of major proportions.

Read on and learn how some professors are advancing their research at a rapid pace by using QUARC. 

Design complex control processes with ease
“We develop control algorithms for a rehabilitation robot designed and manufactured by Quanser. The device is designed to help stroke survivors perform upper limb movement therapy exercises. We are especially interested in using robotically-captured records of patients’ motions to accurately measure their motor performance, enabling clinicians to design optimal therapy interventions that will help maximize recovery.
Using QUARC, University of Alberta researcher Matthew Dyck was able to quickly develop control algorithms for a rehabilitation robot designed to help  stroke survivors perform upper limb movement therapy exercises.  (Photo courtesy of University of Alberta)
Our robot and its associated sensors are programmed, monitored, and controlled entirely through QUARC. QUARC makes it possible for us to design complex control solutions with ease, and enables us to fine-tune those algorithms in real time as they are implemented on physical hardware.

QUARC rapidly accelerates the process of translating an idea into a tangible, functioning prototype. Through its high-level programming environment, QUARC enables engineers to focus on designing innovative solutions rather than troubleshooting programming errors. QUARC’s advanced functionalities have both simplified and supercharged our real-time, hardware-in-the-loop programming and offline simulations.” 
- Matthew Dyck, E.I.T., M.Sc. Student, Electrical and Computer Engineering, University of Alberta, Canada

A tremendous help for research in distributed sensing systems
“QUARC's support of TCP/IP has been a tremendous help for our research. It allowed us to develop a distributed sensing system that isn't dependent on expensive I/O hardware or DAQ boards. Further, this allows for safety-critical redundancy when we are doing vehicle control tests.”
- Professor Sean Brennan, Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering, Penn State University, USA

Flexibility and ease of development in autonomous flight systems research
“We are using the Quanser Qball to conduct research into a number of areas. First, we are looking at designing cooperative flight and sightline controllers for practical laser wireless power transfer. We are building a laser transceiver to mount on the Qball and a ground-based laser pointer. Another area is using the Qball to demonstrate the effectiveness of nonlinear flight stabilization controllers for constrained flight in atmospheric turbulence. We chose Quanser for our lab for a number of reasons, but primarily because of the flexibility and ease of development provided by QUARC.”
- Professor David Anderson, MAST Lab and Aerospace Science Research Division, University of Glasgow, UK

Gather information quickly
“The computational speed and the communication speed between the Quanser Q8 data acquisition board and the QUARC environment is excellent, and completely fulfilled our needs. So we were able to gather information quickly, learn what worked and didn't work, then implement the necessary rapid design changes to the controller.”
- Professor Marcia O’Malley, Department of Mechanical Engineering, Rice University, USA

Faster development and a clearer control sequence
“Our lab is developing haptic devices and VR systems. Conventionally, we use VC++ and OpenGL to develop the control system and the visual interface. With Q8 and QUARC, I can now do the same thing faster and the control sequence is much clearer than before.”
- Yi Yang, Ph.D Student, Human Machine Interaction & Robotics, Beihang University, China

Students can implement new algorithms quickly
“QUARC interfaces very easily with Simulink. It's excellent in terms of rapid prototyping and it's also very good in terms of research work where you have students working through Simulink. It forces students to be in some ways better programmers than they are. Let's face it, some mechanical engineers don't necessarily like writing code, but now they have this ability to generate real time code by basically developing a Simulink model and then compiling it into real time code. Students can also implement new algorithms fast because they do not need to develop their own haptic system, but only to integrate additional blocks into an existing Simulink model. That certainly makes life much easier.”
- Professor Daniela Constaninescu, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Victoria, Canada

If we had been aware of QUARC when we began, we could have saved two years
“QUARC has made our programming faster and more robust. More importantly, it allowed us to move forward quickly by unifying our old and new programming platforms.”

“By understanding two different programming languages, QUARC helped us to prototype the system and produced a working simulation very, very quickly. In one week we installed QUARC, took the interactive tutorial available online from Quanser and used QUARC successfully to do rapid prototyping of the experiment. It just worked as we intended it to. We did high level programming of the robot's vision-based controller very quickly and accurately. If we had been aware of QUARC when we began this assistive robotic project, it would have sped up our work a great deal. We could have saved two years.”
- Professor Aman Behal, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, University of Central Florida, USA

To find out how a wide range of blocksets in QUARC 2.3 are tailored for researchers, click here.