Rice University Puts Control in the Hands of Students with NI myRIO

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"We are excited to have a single, accessible platform that we can use for every lab in the course with NI myRIO. It combines the out-of-the-box nature of NI myDAQ with the performance of industry-grade technology from NI."

- Dr. Marcia O’Malley, Rice University Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science–MS 321

The Challenge:
Teaching students system dynamics and controls concepts with a high-performance tool that is not above the skill set of undergraduates.

The Solution:
Using industry-proven NI LabVIEW software and the new NI myRIO device, students can actively participate in learning system dynamics and controls concepts using hardware and software that provides industry-grade performance with a student-friendly user experience.

Author(s):
Dr. Marcia O’Malley - Rice University Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science–MS 321

Modeling Dynamic Systems (MECH 343) is a required course taught in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Material Science to third-year students at Rice University. Students enrolled in this course learn modeling techniques based on first principles, and then analyze dynamical system responses in the time and frequency domain. A hands-on laboratory component is critical to the course in order to help students learn more complex concepts in dynamic systems modeling, mechatronics, and the basics of control.

The course culminates in experimenting with a haptic paddle system that gives students an introduction to control theory. A haptic paddle is a one degree of freedom force feedback device that offers students the chance to experience the effects of changing control gains. Students can also implement a teleoperation system with two paddles. These haptic paddle experiments require deterministic hardware and software systems to reliably produce the necessary control-loop rates. Historically, students spent the first several weeks of the lab analyzing time domain responses of mechanical and electrical systems and basic measurements for calibration and analysis of the haptic paddle system using an NI myDAQ device. Later in the semester, the instructor used PXI systems to produce the faster loop rates needed to render virtual environments with the haptic paddle in order to introduce control. NI myDAQ offered students a truly hands-on approach to learning circuits, measurements, and time domain response analysis due to its student-friendly design and software experience. The PXI systems provided the necessary performance, but they were too complex for students to use in a short period of time, so graduate students demonstrated preprogrammed systems to the students. This meant that students could observe control concepts in action, but did not learn anything about control system implementation.

Developing a New Hands-On Way to Teach Control System Implementation

We wanted to continue with a hands-on approach from the first lab to the last and sought a device that combined the student-friendly nature of NI myDAQ with the performance of industry-grade hardware. The NI myRIO device is the perfect solution because it is designed for students but provides the same hardware paradigm used in NI industry-grade tools. The product features predefined I/O on the FPGA, which means we can use this product right out of the box and customize it later if necessary. Additionally, NI myRIO is fully programmable with NI LabVIEW software so students can expand on the knowledge they gained using NI myDAQ.

Rice University, an early access user, received an NI myRIO device during the 2013 spring semester. Two graduate students who had very little LabVIEW knowledge worked to recreate the labs on NI myRIO that were previously running on the PXI systems. The graduate students used I/O for the NI myRIO out of the box and did not need to customize the FPGA. Additionally, they used Express VIs that were very similar to what they had seen with NI myDAQ to recreate the same behavior that was custom programmed years before on the PXI systems. In just a few weeks, the graduate students successfully transferred the labs to the NI myRIO and achieved the necessary loop rates.

Using NI myRIO, we achieved real-time performance and can effectively demonstrate concepts to introduce closed-loop control in a way that students can understand and truly engage. Beginning in the 2013 fall semester, MECH 343 students will program these dynamic system analysis and control experiments for the first time rather than watching a demonstration from a graduate student.

We are excited to have a single, accessible platform that we can use for every lab in the course with NI myRIO. It combines the out-of-the-box nature of NI myDAQ with the performance of industry-grade technology from NI.

Author Information:
Dr. Marcia O’Malley
Rice University Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science–MS 321
6100 Main Street
Houston, TX 77005-1892

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