EiED Online>> An Eye on NI Week

Sept. 1, 2005
Bill attended NI Week, National Instruments’ annual dog and pony show. He takes a look at the best of breed, including some integrated solutions that streamline the development process along with Lego robot competitors.

NI Week was held in a rather warm Austin, Texas as usual. National Instruments (NI) puts on a pretty good bash, and they brought out all the big guns including major partners like Analog Devices. LabView, NI's graphical development environment, was the centerpiece and most third-party announcements were related to LabView in one fashion or another.

NI had a plethora of announcements that I won't cover here. Their website has a list (www.ni.com/niweek/). Instead I was going to take a look at some of the joint announcements, some third-party products I saw, and a quick look at Freescale's 3-axis accelerometer kit. This small (6 mm by 6 mm) 3-axis chip was used at the show in a number of demonstrations with LabView.

Analog Devices Inc. (ADI) was a major player at the show with a large booth area and two joint announcements with NI. The first announcement covered ADI's interactive, web-based Amplifier Parametric Evaluation Tool (see Fig. 1). You can find it on ADI's site (www.analog.com). Just select the Design Center tab and look for Amplifier Parametric Evaluation Tool under Product by Category/Amplifiers and Comparators/Design Tools.

The tool is actually a web-based front-end for LabView equipped with a program that takes parameters you enter and runs a simulation. The results are presented in graphical and text form.

Another aspect of the tool is chip selection. This is based on the entered parameters and is similar to a parametric search available on most vendor sites. The big difference is that each chip will be presented based upon its relevance to the requirements with notes about problems and solutions that a particular chip may have. Simply adjusting a resistor may make a less expensive chip worth looking at. This tool lets you find out quickly.

Overall, the tool is a very good first pass and worth investigation by anyone working with op amps, especially those not well versed in the analog side of things.

Analog Devices and National Instruments revealed more of their cooperative efforts with a beta view of its LabVIEW Embedded Module for ADI Blackfin processors (see Fig. 2). It's a hardware and software combination that makes selection and testing of Blackfin DSPs easier via LabView. LabView can download the latest definitions from the Internet so that developers can keep abreast of new hardware.

The software support from ADI includes virtual instruments (VIs) for Blackfin peripherals along with building blocks like filters that have been hand optimized and tested. Developers simply need to drag-and-drop the appropriate objects in LabView and then connect them together.

LabView's debugging environment is available for testing the Blackfin applications and it is possible to set breakpoints that also link up with ADI's VisualDSP++ development and debugging environment. This provides the best of both worlds: graphical and low-level, single-stepping debugging.

The key is the level of integration provided between the development tools. The package includes both ADI's and NI's development environments along with an evaluation board. It allows designers to get started quickly, but maintain a high level of functionality throughout the development process.

On The Floor LabView was everywhere on the show floor. Its use ranged from serious to silly. Somewhere in the middle was a balancing demonstration (see Fig. 3). Essentially, a LabView program kept a pole balanced vertically on a tracked car. Demonstrators kept knocking it out of balance and the program would recover. It was a pretty good example of PID (proportional, integral, derivative) control.

Some of the products on display were more practical, such as Wavecrest's SIA PCI Express test system (see Fig. 4). PCI Express is really taking off, but its speeds are so high that conventional diagnostic tools are impractical to use. What is needed are very-high-speed tools like this. The demo included monitoring an Nvidia graphics card.

But back to the silly. Did you know that LabView can make popcorn (see Fig. 5)? While there were some minor snafus, attendees were able to eat their fill from this monstrous marvel even though its economical benefits are suspect. Still, it was fun to watch.

Swinging back to the practical, MEN Micro was showing off a number of single-board-computer and data-acquisition modules (see Fig. 6). While PXI is one of the most common uses for LabView, it can be used in embedded applications as well. MEN Micros hardware supports LabView, allowing developers to deploy custom hardware instead of using something like NI's CompactRIO or a PC.

Speaking of CompactRIO, one demonstration was a mix of Chinese water torture and a Rube Goldberg machine (see Fig. 7). Yet another LabView application was running on CompactRIO combining servo control with optical recognition. Ball bearings were dropped from a height of about three feet and placed into one of three buckets. The balls fell past an image sensor that determined the type of ball and where it was supposed to go. An angled metal plate was rotated so the ball would hit it and bounce into the desired bucket. It never missed, but the sound gets rather annoying after thirty seconds. I think more than one person wanted to toss the ball bearings in a place other than the buckets.

Image recognition and surveillance is becoming more popular and practical, so it was not surprising to see FLIR Systems at the show. One of their products is a heat-sensitive camera (see Fig. 8).

Motor and process control is a big area for LabView. Lobow Products was showing their new TMS9000 digital telemetry wireless torque sensor (see Fig. 9). A small box contains the receiver and processing electronics that can link to a PC. This packaging makes the sensor easy to deploy.

Finally, another image-processing application from NI showed off LabView's capabilities in this area (see Fig. 10). Labeled boxes of floss were examined sequentially and errors on the packaging were detected and highlighted. The recognition process was very quick, showing that this application would be practical for quality control on a real production line.

Having Fun There was an industry-expert panel session on the last day of the show. The panel included Dr. James Truchard, President, CEO and co-founder of National Instruments. Although the discussion covered a lot of ground, one topic kept cropping up: math, science, and engineering education in primary and secondary schools along with undergraduate and graduate studies in the U.S.

There was a general downbeat on the overall quality of education along with the desire to do more to improve the situation. The FIRST robotics competition was one of the items brought up, as NI helps out with their local teams.

Unfortunately I didn't get my two cents in, so I'll drop them in here. Many of you may already know about my support for the science fairs. I now run one in Mercer County, N.J. It feeds into two other major science fairs: the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair and the Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge. The big difference between something like FIRST and the local and regional science fairs is the number of students that are involved. I think FIRST is great, but it requires a significant effort and cost for a small number of students whereas the science fairs typically involve many hundreds of local students.

You can check out all these competitions at the websites listed at the end of this article, and you can also find out about the local and regional competitions in your area. I encourage anyone concerned with the technical welfare of our children to get involved. Likewise, companies and individuals that can afford to provide donations should do so. The payback is great compared to the cost.

Anyway, back to NI Week. Lego Mindstorm robots are the basis for the FIRST Lego robot competition. Consequently, Legos were all over the place, including some interesting demonstrations of non-robots (see Fig. 11). As I just noted, NI is involved in the local competition in Austin, so they just happen to have all that hardware setup to entice unsuspecting engineers and developers to try their hand at creating the ultimate Lego robot (see Fig. 12).

It was a team competition and NI was kind enough not to throw everyone to the Lego wolves as each team had a mentor. This was handy because, although the underlying software used to program the robots is actually LabView, creating and programming a robot is not an easy task and there were a number of tasks to perform (see Fig. 13). There were a couple of ringers in the event, including some high school students who have actually competed in the FIRST competition. Everyone had a good time and many may have learned a few things as well. It was a nice way to round out the show. Even though it took hours to run through all the teams, it was worth staying around to see who won. Despite the fact that some robots went to pieces, everyone had a whole lot of fun.

There was quite a bit more at the show, but I had only a day to take it all in while having a couple of meetings on the side. It is definitely worth a visit if LabView is part of your routine.

Hand Waving I saved the Freescale MMA7260Q XYZ 3-axis low-G acceleration sensor (see Fig. 14) for last. This demo board provides access to the chip's outputs. I also tried out a different version of the board that has a serial interface, making it easier to attach to a PC. This board has a Windows application that can be used to test the MMA7260Q. It is very useful in doing basic experimentation over the MMA7260Q's performance range, but a bit impractical for anything else.On the other hand, the MMA7260Q demo board is small enough and interfaces directly with most micros to embed in a test system. There is no response delay that the serial-port interface would incur. I was able to easily interface the MMA7260Q to an 8-bit micro (not one from Freescale) with a multiple-channel, 8-bit ADC (analog-to-digital converter). The output range is about 200 mV/g to 800 mV/g, depending upon the sensitivity setting. The chip handles 1 g to 6 g ranges, and comes in a 6-mm by 6-mm QFN package. In sleep mode, the chip draws only 3 mA.

The accompanying CD includes a number of app notes, but most are targeted at Freescale microcontrollers. Luckily, using this chip is so easy that it's just a matter of finding a microcontroller that has sufficient analog and processing power to address the desired application.

The MMA7260Q showed up in a number of demos at NI Week, and it was also big at Freescale's event that I wrote about earlier (ED Online ID 10696).

Related Links Analog Devices

Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge


FLIR Systems Inc.


Intel International Science and Engineering Fair

Lobow Products Inc.

MEN Micro

National Instuments


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