Accelerating Research Innovation: Teaching LabVIEW at a Centre of Doctoral Training

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"Many students have gone on to apply their experience with the NI platform within their own postgraduate degrees and to accelerate the product development of their sponsoring companies."

- Dr Gordon Flockhart, Faculty of Engineering, University of Strathclyde

The Challenge:
Postgraduate research students join the Centre of Doctoral Training with varying levels of programming experience and from a wide variety of backgrounds, including mechanical engineering, physics, and computer science. We needed an effective way of enabling all of students to develop embedded systems, integrated electronics, photonics and programming for applied research applications.

The Solution:
We created and taught a course using LabVIEW and myRIO Embedded Devices so students could learn to program and access reprogrammable digital hardware to develop working systems through group projects; thus, empowering research students to prove theoretical ideas in the real world.

Author(s):
Dr Gordon Flockhart - Faculty of Engineering, University of Strathclyde

Introduction

The Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Applied Photonics allows students to undertake industry-relevant research by working directly with companies to develop photonics-enabled products and services, whilst receiving advanced-level training and earning a PhD-equivalent engineering doctorate (EngD) on completion. The CDT is a collaboration between five university partners (Heriot-Watt University, University of Glasgow, University of St Andrews, University of Strathclyde, and University of Dundee) that combines a breadth of teaching and research.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and sponsoring companies cofunded the CDT, which offers four-year EngD studentships to UK nationals. The programme includes a nine-month master’s-level component. In the first semester, the students study advanced topics in photonics at the University of St Andrews. In the second semester, they focus on electronics and nanofabrication at the University of Strathclyde and University of Glasgow. The students then join their sponsoring companies to undertake their research. In addition, they take a business-focused course delivered by Heriot-Watt University’s business school.

Practical and Transferable Experiences

Our overall aim was to equip students with a broad range of theoretical knowledge, whilst empowering them with transferable, practical skills and exposure to industry-grade technologies. This well-rounded education would allow them to progress their research in industrial environments.

Because the students who join the CDT programme come from a wide-variety of educational backgrounds, we realised that they may not have as much experience with programming compared to our own graduates in electronic and electrical engineering. Also, we did not want the learning outcomes of the course to focus only on programming; rather, we wanted students to learn to integrate analogue electronics and photonic devices, and provide the processing capability required to build advanced systems.

 Figure 1. Students focus on innovation rather than implementation.

 

Due to these constraints, we wanted a solution that helped students become productive quickly and a programming environment that allowed them to focus on their project innovations, rather than programming syntax. As such, it was clear that adapting our existing taught material using microcontrollers and C or FPGAs and VHDL would not be appropriate.

Empowering Practical Innovation

To overcome these challenges, we decided to develop a new course that introduced LabVIEW as the programming environment and myRIO Student Embedded Devices as the hardware platform.

I first started using LabVIEW in 1997 for data acquisition and instrument control.  I was familiar with the LabVIEW graphical programming environment and knew that students would pick it up quickly. However, the reconfigurable, embedded hardware platform was new to me.  To better understand its potential, we met with members of the dedicated NI Academic Team. We were impressed by the incredible ways that students and universities around the world use myRIO—from teaching advanced embedded systems and kinematics to controlling drones and space rockets. The myRIO device was a great fit for the CDT course—not only was it compact and intuitive, but it offered huge processing power and endless versatility.

Figure 2. The myRIO device features impressive processing capabilities in a compact form factor.

 

To simplify the integration of LabVIEW and myRIO into our course, NI also gave us training materials on the LabVIEW Real-Time Module and the LabVIEW FPGA Module. This courseware includes four practical laboratory sessions (each three hours long), in which students learn about embedded programming and then program their myRIO devices to interface with external electronics, sensors, and actuators.

Following the early training, students participate in group projects to design, build, and demonstrate the integration of the embedded systems into a photonics application, such as closed-loop control of a laser cavity or vision-based tracking and line-of-sight optical communications with moving targets.

Figure 3. LabVIEW helped accelerate system design and academic discovery.

 

NI has helped support the development of the practical laboratories through regular meetings, initially to discuss potential laboratory activities, and subsequently to reflect on the annual running of the laboratory sessions and plans to refine them. NI also presented guest lectures to the students that detailed how their industrial customers use NI reconfigurable I/O (RIO) hardware, demonstrating the relevance of the course as they progress through their education and into their future careers.

Overall Experience

The course and adoption of myRIO hardware has been very successful. The students quickly grasp basic LabVIEW programming skills and can start exploring the myRIO device quickly. As the students progress to project work, they are encouraged to access support in the NI online community and a vast array of online training resources to help develop more advanced programming skills.

Figure 4. The NI platform can scale along with the complexity of the research projects.

 

The course has empowered the students to investigate firsthand the potential benefits of using reconfigurable, embedded hardware for photonics-based applications. Feedback from the students has been very positive, with the course being rated as their favourite taught component of the CDT. Additionally, many students have gone on to apply their experience with the NI platform within their own postgraduate degrees and to accelerate the product development of their sponsoring companies.

 

Author Information:
Dr Gordon Flockhart
Faculty of Engineering, University of Strathclyde
Faculty of Engineering, University of Strathclyde
gordon.flockhart@strath.ac.uk

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