Test instruments in Texas

Sept. 11, 2008
Among the developments at NI Week: Wi-Fi DAQ and measurement gear you can call on your cell phone.

Almost 3,000 hardy souls braved the sweltering temperatures of Austin, Tex., during the first week in August to attend the National Instruments Corp. NIWeek ’08 conference. Most seemed to think it was worth the effort. The Austin Convention Center was transformed into a mecca of technology, test, and instrumentation presentations by over 70 NI partners and collaborators.

Among the news: The latest version of NI’s flagship software, LabView 8.6. The virtual-instrumentation package builds on the multithread aspects introduced in 8.2 to boost performance through multicore-optimized features. Some 1,200 advanced analysis functions were tweaked to give 8.6 faster math and signal processing on multicore systems. Special modules for specific applications include a Vision Development Module for image processing, a Modulation Toolkit for testing wireless devices, and a Control Design and Simulation Module that executes simulation models in parallel up to 5 faster than prior versions.

New in LabView 8.6 is support for 22 third-party wireless sensors planted in isolated locations via NI’s Wi-Fi data-acquisition hardware without need for LabView 8.6 code changes. The 3D visualization tools combine remote measurements with design models to accelerate design validation.

Also, it’s now possible to convert LabView applications into Web services for access from any Web-enabled device such as a PC or smart phone. User interfaces for LabView applications can now use standard Web technologies such as HTML, JavaScript, and Flash to monitor and control operations.

NI also introduced several new pieces of hardware, including a single-board RIO platform, a wireless data-acquisition (DAQ) adapter, and a 6.6-GHz RF test instrument consisting of an RF vector-signal analyzer, a vector-signal generator, and an 18-slot PXI Express chassis that provides 1-Gbyte/sec bandwidth to each slot with a 4-Gbyte/sec total system bandwidth.

The single-board RIO (Reconfigurable I/O) devices combine an embedded real-time processor, a reconfigurable FPGA, and analog and digital I/O on a printed-circuit board. The boards target applications that need flexibility, performance, and reliability in a small form factor. Two models feature a 266 or 400-MHz Freescale MPC5200 processor, the Wind River VxWorks real-time operating system, and a Xilinx Spartan-3 FPGA. Analog and digital I/O connect directly to the FPGA for low-level customization of timing and I/O signals. Three expansion slots on the board let designers connect any of the more than 40 C-Series I/O modules to gage such parameters as acceleration, temperature, power quality, and for controller-area network (CAN) motion control.

NI debuted 10 Wi-Fi and Ethernet DAQ devices, moving solidly into the wireless remote-monitoring and control realm. The Wi-Fi DAQ hardware uses the IEEE 802.11 standard to stream more than 50 kSamples/sec with 24-bit resolution. Built-in advanced network authentication methods and 128-bit AES encryption are said to provide network security that meets the standards defined for wireless networks in U.S. government facilities by the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

For RF testing, the PXIe-5663 vector signal analyzer performs signal analysis from 10 MHz to 6.6GHz with up to 50-MHz instantaneous bandwidth. On the signal-generation side, the PXIe-5673 delivers 85 MHz to 6.6-GHz RF at instantaneous bandwidths up to 100 MHz. When combined with the PXIe-1075 PXI Express chassis, the devices can perform tests and analysis on current and emerging communication technologies, including WiMAX, GPS, WCDMA, GSM, EDGE, broadcast video, 802.11, Bluetooth, OFDM, and MIMO.

While NIWeek obviously centers around National Instruments offerings, other developments were on display as well. The Epics (Engineering Projects in Community Service) program of Purdue University had a student-designed Mars Rover exhibit where volunteers could test their skill at maneuvering the vehicle over a simulated Martian terrain. Epics lets undergraduates work with people from many different backgrounds and give community service agencies technological expertise that would otherwise be unaffordable.

Lego Corp. strengthened its long-standing ties with NI through the newly released Lego Education WeDo software. WeDo uses a drag-and-drop, icon-based environment with NI LabView at its core that lets elementary schoolers easily program their own robotic inventions. Students invent solutions to specific problems, build a Lego model to fit the application, and program it to perform the tasks needed. One display had a student-designed underwater digging machine working in the gravel of a large aquarium on the show floor.

Other things to note: Endevco Corp. was on hand displaying a line of vibration, shock, and pressure sensors for DAQ hardware. Hitachi Kokusai Electric America used its latest Camera Link and GigE cameras to look at microparts. PCB Piezotronics displayed a microphone array for sound analysis and evaluation.

SolidWorks, along with NI, demonstrated how LabView’s model simulation software could manipulate a 3D model created by SolidWorks software. The simulation lets engineers test and certify a control installation before the first piece of hardware goes into place.

Students from the University of Texas Solar Vehicles Team display their solar-powered car at the Improving Everyday Life exhibit. The solar cell-covered upper panel can be seen behind the vehicle.

Engineers building embedded-control systems can now use NI LabView with a new ARM-based controller and FPGA-based single-board RIO module.

Visitors to NIWeek could try their hand operating a replica of Nexan’s underwater crawler in the Robotics Pavilion.

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