EiED Online>> LabVIEW Celebration; and Robots Too!

Aug. 10, 2006
National Instruments’ annual NI Week was the host for the announcement of LabVIEW 8.20 and Lego NXT robotics platform. It was also a major celebration of the company’s 30th year and the 20th anniversary of LabVIEW.

National Instrument’s annual NI Week at its home city of Austin was cooler than last year both inside the convention center and without (although it was still hot and humid). There were some major announcements from National Instruments (NI) and also Lego at this year’s event. One reason for all the hoopla is NI’s 30th anniversary. Definitely seems like a good thing to celebrate. The other is the 20th anniversary of LabVIEW, NI’s main software product and the centerpiece of its hardware product line as well. A little more on the LabVIEW announcement later including one of the newest enhancements, object oriented programming support.

I’m only through the beginning of the show but I did get to see a few things from Oki Semiconductor and Analog Devices but first the fun stuff. Robots!

Bring In The Robots The Mindstorms NXT is the latest Mindstorm product from Lego. The control unit contains a 32-bit ARM7 microcontroller with 256 kbytes of flash memory and 64 kbytes of RAM. There is also an 8-bit AVR microcontroller with 4 kbytes of flash and 512 bytes of RAM for peripheral control. Communication support includes Bluetooth wireless and full speed USB (12 Mbit/s). The box has four 6-wire input ports and 3 output ports. IO includes a 100 by 64 pixel LCD graphical display and a loudspeaker. The unit is powered by 6 AA batteries. Of course, the NI LabVIEW is the underpinnings to the software that comes with the NXT.

It is possible to build a range of robots using the NXT kit like this upright robot (see Figure 1) and this one for grasping at straws (see Figure 2). These mobile robots are a far cry from the super bot shown in the Lego commercial where it played soccer with a tag line where NXT can be used to build a robot that will build “almost” what you can dream of. Still, the commercial and the NXT is bound to garner attention and inspire robotic experts to be. Overall it was an impressive announcement. I was hoping to get a movie of the scorpion (see Figure 3) that will attack anything put in front of it so you will have to be satisfied with this rotating image detection system (see Figure 4) that shows you don’t have to just build up robots using NXT. Click here to see video">//archive.electronicdesign.com/video/electronicdesign_vision03.wmv">Click here to see video

I’ll have more on the software and the LabVIEW Toolkit for Lego Mindstorms NXT in a few weeks after I have had my hands on the kit for awhile. The standard software uses a graphical interface similar to Labview but significantly simpler and designed for robot control. The LabVIEW Toolkit provides more sophisticated developers with the tools to do just about anything with the NXT. Lego also announced an open source firmware developer kit as well providing yet another way to exercise these little plastic blocks.

20 Years Yields Object-Oriented Programming? LabVIEW 8.20 was clearly the centerpiece for almost all the presentations at NI Week. This version of LabVIEW has a host of enhancements and Lou Frenzel will have an article posted cover many of these. I’ll be doing another soon on the new software architectural enhancement: object oriented programming (OOP).

Some might be surprised that LabVIEW lacked OOP support since so much of its interface uses an object oriented, but that is another story. The new object support builds a class using LabVIEW’s virtual instruments (VI). Each method in a new class is a VI. Object variables are LabVIEW controls. Surprisingly simple but extremely powerful. It will take most LabVIEW developers a little time to experiment and experience OOP but it is likely to change the way LabVIEW is used and perceived.

Speaking of perception, vision was in use in many of the demonstrations on the exhibit floor. LabVIEW’s vision support was used to build an assembly line sorting system (see Figure 5) as well as doing some quality control (see Figure 6). Click here to see sorting video">//archive.electronicdesign.com/video/electronicdesign_vision01.wmv">Click here to see sorting video Click here to see quality-control video">//archive.electronicdesign.com/video/electronicdesign_vision02.wmv">Click here to see quality-control video These were built using the Vision Development Module and NI Vision Builder for Automated Inspection (AI).

Another hot topic at the show was PXI Express, the follow-on to PXI, a PCI-based bus designed for test and measurement applications. The standard was released about a year ago but this NI Week was where boards can backplanes were on display from NI and many of its partners.

PXI Express bring many of the PCI Express features including 110-Mbyte/s bandwidth and low latency. Features like hot swap support and the ability to run cables between systems make it significantly more powerful than PXI. Surprisingly, prices for these more powerful systems are lower as well. The PXI with MXI-Express system from NI starts at only $999.

Students Build A Segway NI’s CompactRIO was out in force as well but one of the most inspiring examples was courtesy of three engineering students from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute: Teresa Bernardi, Laura Corman, and Matthew Rosmarin. These engineering students built a self-balancing human transporter (see Figure 7). Given the buzz the original Segway Human Transported spawned it is not a surprise that this was one of the hits of the show. You can see the CompactRIO through the Plexiglass floor (see Figure 8). The students worked under the guidance of Kevin Craig, professor of mechanical, aerospace, and nuclear engineering at RPI.

The students used LabVIEW to learn the basics, design a system, implement and build a prototype and then build and test the unit shown in the figures. Not bad for a semester course. It shows how LabVIEW allows people to concentrate on the problem and not the infrastructure. In this case it was the feedback system.

Some Wireless Surprises I did have some surprises at the show since I was expecting primarily T&M and LabVIEW related technology. Actually, I should not have been given how hot wireless technology like Zigbee and 802.15.4 are.

One product I saw was Oki Semiconductor’s Arm-based Zigbee development kit. I will be doing a hands-on review of it and a number of other kits in a few weeks. Oki’s solution is relatively unique at this time with a 32-bit microcontroller with a Zigbee stack. More vendors will be supporting 32-bit MCUs and Zigbee in the future. Oki’s kit includes a pair of Zigbee dongles for a PC in addition to the Arm-based board and software. Not bad for under $500. More on this later.

More on the other item as well. I stopped by Crossbow Technology’s booth as well. They have an 802.15.4 solution called MoteWorks. MoteWorks is a framework with Zigbee-like features. It is based on TinyOS (see “TinyOS Plus ZigBee Stack Targets Tiny Tasks,” ED Online 12927). A kit from Crossbow will also be in the hands-on article so I will save most of the details till then. MoteWorks brings mesh support to 802.15.4 in addition to features such as remote firmware downloads.

There is still more at NI Week. I am hoping to stop by Dean Kamen’s keynote tomorrow about science and academics. It plays off a number of other sessions as NI Week including an experts panel I attended today. Things are looking up with companies like NI and Lego providing product and, possibly more important, support for academic activities that will help promote science, technology and engineering in our most important resource, our children.

Right now it is time for the basics: dinner. Enjoy.

Related Links Analog Devices

Crossbow Technology

FIRST Robotics

Lego Mindstorms

National Instruments

Oki Semiconductor


Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

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