Creating a Unified Platform for Engineering Teaching and Research at Kingston University

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"With many exciting new projects planned, we look forward to using National Instruments tools and technology at Kingston University for years to come. The company continues to offer staff and students a unified platform without the need to learn a new software package for each module on the course and their projects."

- Andrzej Ordys, Kingston University London

The Challenge:
Creating a unified teaching and applied research platform based on technology-centered learning methods for undergraduate and postgraduate-taught courses and applied research projects, including rapid prototyping.

The Solution:
Using NI LabVIEW, the NI Educational Laboratory Virtual Instrumentation Suite (NI ELVIS), and NI CompactRIO to develop hands-on teaching tools for the undergraduate and postgraduate levels.

Author(s):
Gordana Collier - Kingston University London
Andrzej Ordys - Kingston University London

Introduction

The Kingston University engineering department is an environment with a wide range of student backgrounds and learning styles. Kingston questionnaires show hands-on sessions receive positive feedback from the majority of students. Our cohorts of applied engineers (aeronautical, civil, and automotive students), who often do not have a deep concern for all three fields but are more interested in the applications, greatly benefit from the easy-to-learn, intuitive LabVIEW graphical programming environment. With LabVIEW, they can reach the application stage faster, while focusing on creating the overall system, without the distraction of learning programming syntax.

At the undergraduate level, this approach bridges the basic concepts from the electronic, mechanical, and software engineering fields, resulting in seamless curriculum integration. At the postgraduate level, it includes opportunities to study an industry-standard design, test, and measurement environment, which prepares students to practice their professions and improves their employment prospects.

In addition to academic factors, a National Instruments united platform for undergraduate and postgraduate teaching modules is important for a variety of operational reasons. A common problem in academia stems from many staff members often purchasing a range of software and hardware solutions from different vendors, only to discard the so-called solutions after a short period of time because of staff or syllabus changes. Our vision was to create a reliable, wide-ranging, and multidisciplinary platform with dedicated technical support. We needed scalability with a sufficient number of training stations to move from demonstrations to individual or small-group training sessions.

During our consideration of four major worldwide manufacturers, we thought the NI solution was the most powerful. We rejected the first solution due to ”split support” for software and hardware and lack of value for the money. The second solution was not fully developed, and while the vendor offered to develop the solution to suit the project, we had concerns about its completion and success. The third vendor was primarily hardware-based, thus offering mostly hardware-related learning. The balanced software and hardware platform from National Instruments offered broad opportunities for both teaching and learning.

Teaching and Project Examples

Examples of classes using LabVIEW and NI hardware include the following:

  • Introduction to programming, sensors, and actuators within the first-year module, Introduction to Electronics and Computing (LEGO® MINDSTORMS®)
  • Second-year data communications module (NI ELVIS with Emona)
  • Third-year mechatronics design (NI ELVIS with Freescale)
  • Master-level mechatronics and automation (virtual and real LabVIEW Robotics Starting Kit [DaNI]), advanced robotics (DaNI and virtual robotic arm), data communications module (NI ELVIS with Emona), and embedded systems (NI ELVIS with Freescale and LabVIEW with CompactRIO)

One result of using both the software and hardware in the classroom is a significant increase in robotics interest. The students who learned LabVIEW their first year had the confidence to make LabVIEW and LEGO® MINDSTORMS® robots their tools of choice in their final dissertations. Undergraduate projects in astronautical and mechanical engineering regularly use a robotic system with programming tools, which was not the case in the past.

An added benefit of the hands-on teaching approach is the formation of a robotics club, which serves as a peer-support network to help first-year students. The club overlaps with the recently started Lunabotics Project—a large-scale design and building group project run by first- and second-year astronautical students. The students have created a determined, competent team that is planning to build a sizeable moon-mining vehicle to participate in the NASA Lunabotics Mining Competition.

At the postgraduate level, the majority of projects are linked to research, including SolidWorks prototypes controlled with LabVIEW. We developed a series of adaptive cruise-control experiments based on proportional integral derivative, fuzzy, and model predictive control algorithms implemented in DaNI. We implemented previous theoretical research by importing existing MathWorks, Inc. MATLAB® .m files. Another project involved DaNI robot-implemented, laser-based pipe inspection. Examples of new projects include terrain mapping using DaNI with an onboard Xbox Kinect sensor and haptic feedback for a robotic arm based on Kinect.

Applied Industrial Research

The most prominent example of applied industrial research is our Technology Transfer Board, a funded collaborative project between Kingston University and Chess Dynamics, a leading supplier of high-performance platforms and motion systems to the aerospace and defense industries.

This 30-month project aims to systematically approach the rapid prototyping of embedded controllers. Using a unified set of software and hardware tools, we facilitate the process from initial plant modeling to the control design stage, including verification and real-time implementation and the creation of a plant and controller model library.

The second aim of this project is to develop technologies that improve the accuracy and speed of the company’s tracking and motion stabilization systems. The project benefits from National Instruments products, which the company now uses in a variety of applications. Examples include measurements based on CompactRIO and NI CompactDAQ; factory acceptance testing; and research and development for system modeling, control, simulation, and implementation, including a hardware-in-the-loop approach. The company developed technical expertise, which resulted in improved system performance and a new competitive edge.

Another applied industrial research project deals with modelling, simulating, and controlling a modern power generation plant, including both traditional methods of energy generation and renewable sources. The most recent project involves characterization of an accelerometer to reduce fuel consumption based on terrain/road estimation in a project for Jaguar Land Rover.

Support and Experience

Kingston University benefits from a campus-wide LabVIEW license and a CompactRIO system assurance program to help with setup and staff training. It also benefits from a start-of-year National Instruments lecture, which is very well-received by the students. Several staff members trained both at the NI UK office and online. In addition, NI delivered an on-campus training course for 15 staff members and research students.

We extend this training through an on-campus LabVIEW Academy to deliver intensive short courses for research students and semester-long extracurricular courses for students in the next academic year. LabVIEW Academy materials are custom-developed to suit the existing on-campus NI laboratory setup. Student experience and related feedback on our enhanced teaching involving NI software and hardware is excellent. Students particularly enjoy attending the NIDays conference, which is now integrated into the curriculum. Overseas students are particularly complimentary about the approach, as illustrated by an excerpt from one Nigerian student’s questionnaire (mechatronics master course):

”This course has not only answered the numerous technology-related questions I had at the start, but has left me energized! Each module was well-structured, with classroom and practical sessions being really helpful to me. One of the best examples of merging theoretical and laboratory sessions with industrial applications was the NIDays conference in London—no one has to define mechatronics for me because I saw it for myself.”

Conclusion

With many exciting new projects planned, we look forward to using National Instruments tools and technology at Kingston University for years to come. The company continues to offer staff and students a unified platform without the need to learn a new software package for each module on the course and their projects. The National Instruments platform is wide-ranging in both applications and longevity, has become an integral part of Kingston University engineering, and is deeply embedded into undergraduate and postgraduate teaching and research projects.

Author Information:
Gordana Collier
Kingston University London 

Author Information:
Andrzej Ordys
Kingston University London
Kingston University Lonson
London
United Kingdom

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