Using National Instruments Software and Hardware to Develop an Automated Test System for Satellite Communication Equipment

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"We worked seamlessly with NI GPIB and VXI controllers and LabVIEW software to create an effective solution for the client that will remain useful for years."

- Crescent Luhman, Aegis Group

The Challenge:
Developing an easy-to-use, comprehensive testing system for VME-based satellite communication boards.

The Solution:
Creating a scalable hardware, software, and firmware package that includes an intuitive, semiautomated interface and an easily configurable hardware fixture for each card.

Author(s):
Crescent Luhman - Aegis Group

At Aegis Group, we provide multifunctional services including embedded and enterprise software development, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, and industrial design. Our client, a major aerospace agency, approached us for help updating three major communications subsystems. These systems employed 19 replaceable VME-based cards, most of which were designed and built using technology from the 1980s. The number of properly functioning cards had dwindled to critical levels, but it was not cost-effective to build new cards, so the aerospace agency had to repair the existing cards. However, when individual cards failed, troubleshooting the problems was an overwhelming task, so a new approach was imperative.

The agency required a system that would efficiently identify both faulty cards and failed components on the cards. This system needed to be easy-to-use for nontechnical personnel, had to quickly and accurately diagnose cards down to the component level, be scalable to add new functionality, and needed to last through 2015. We approached this project understanding that we needed to develop a testing solution that was innovative and comprehensive.

The Hardware Setup

Our solution included seven power supplies, each of which provided different voltage outputs as well as separate power for the card being tested and the custom-built, extended test circuit (ETC) board. The ETC board communicated via VXI, and the printed circuit boards (PCBs) under test used VME, which we simulated on the ETC. The ETC board also included two field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), which simulated a VME backplane and allowed for custom messages and error injection.

The test system also used an oscilloscope to capture and display signals. An NI VXI controller provided interfaces between the PC and the ETC board, the power supplies, and the oscilloscope.

We designed a mechanical linkage that contained all moving parts working in concert for easy insertion and removal of PCBs and custom adapter cards without damaging or stressing their high-density connectors. The custom test fixture consisted of an ergonomic test cradle, commercially available and custom electronic components, custom connections, and custom cabling.

The hardware fixture was designed for both maximum functionality and ease of use. For each card, it needed to simulate the operating conditions, offer quick access to all sides, and be fully configurable for different card requirements.

The Software Setup

NI LabVIEW software provided the foundation for each card’s rapid test component development, self-diagnostics for the custom electronics components, and flexibility to build in expandability and customizability. LabVIEW seamlessly integrated with the NI hardware used in the system as well as communication with third-party devices. With LabVIEW, we developed a user interface that displayed graphics and text during each test, the resulting signal waveforms, and a hierarchy of tests for each card. There were easy-to-use instructions, images, and graphics for correctly inserting and connecting each card, including any special cables. When we tested signals, a display showed the component and pin that we probed during the test. We also designed and created a custom database and configuration files for easy maintenance and expansion.

Architecture

We approached the problem of identifying failed components using a spatial rather than a deductive method. In our spatial method, we divided the card geographically into functional areas and their components. The signals entering and leaving each functional area defined a boundary. By testing the boundary signals, we narrowed down the number of possible faulty components to those within the area that had an invalid boundary signal. We subdivided the areas into smaller regions for testing in a similar way until we identified the malfunctioning component.

We were able to architect, design, develop, integrate, test/debug, implement, and deploy the custom test system from concept to delivery and training. We worked seamlessly with NI GPIB and VXI controllers and LabVIEW software to create an effective solution for the client that will remain useful for years. By applying state-of-the-art test techniques with productivity-enhancing LabVIEW features, we quickly generated a robust architecture.

Author Information:
Crescent Luhman
Aegis Group
Tel: 206-447-4175
crescentl@aegisgrp.com

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