The Many Personalities of NI RIO Technology

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Table of Contents

  1. The NI RIO Hardware Platform
  2. The NI RIO Software Platform
  3. RIO Applications and the Future of RIO

Seven years ago, NI released its first reconfigurable I/O (RIO) PXI plug-in board, but it did not stop there.

That first board, the NI PXI-7831R, featured a 1M gate field-programmable gate array (FPGA) along with built-in analog and digital I/O. The “R” in NI PXI-7831R stood for “reconfigurable I/O,” which meant that engineers and scientists could program or reconfigure the onboard FPGA chip to create custom timing, processing, and control for the board I/O to develop advanced data acquisition, control, and test solutions. Even better, users could program the FPGA on the board with NI LabVIEW graphical tools. The result was a software and hardware combination that allowed any engineer or scientist to use FPGA technology within their designs.

Fast-forward from 2003 to 2010. The use of RIO technology has expanded dramatically and has become a primary area of investment for National Instruments. During the past seven years, NI has released hundreds of products within the RIO family for a variety of embedded, industrial, and test applications; now thousands of engineers and scientists worldwide use RIO technology within their designs and solutions.

The core of the NI RIO technology platform still includes LabVIEW graphical system design tools that engineers and scientists can use to program a variety of RIO hardware that shares a common hardware architecture. This high-performance RIO architecture includes a processor for floating-point processing and communications connected to a reconfigurable FPGA that provides the performance of custom hardware along with modular I/O. In this architecture, connecting the FPGA directly to the I/O – whether it be analog, digital, or communication I/O – allows users to customize the timing and processing of each I/O element directly through the FPGA. The benefits of the NI RIO platform include a standard architecture that engineers and scientists can use for any application area, from design to control to test, and a standard LabVIEW programming toolchain that engineering teams can use throughout the design process.

1. The NI RIO Hardware Platform

NI has produced a variety of packaged and board-level hardware systems that share the RIO architecture, so engineers and scientists can reuse hardware and software from the design and prototyping phases of their projects in industrial and embedded deployments and automated testing. For embedded applications, NI Single-Board RIO board-level devices feature a real-time processor, FPGA, and analog and digital I/O on a single board. The NI CompactRIO platform is available in two configurations, including integrated systems with the real-time processor and FPGA in the same chassis and modular systems in which the real-time controller and the FPGA chassis can be interchanged. More than 100 third-party and NI C Series I/O modules can be used within CompactRIO and EtherCAT expansion systems to connect to a variety of sensors and actuators.

Figure 1. The NI RIO product platform includes a variety of board-level and packaged systems for creating advanced embedded, industrial, and test applications.

NI also offers plug-in PCI and PCI Express FPGA R Series boards for use with NI industrial controllers and other PCs and industrial PCs to create a rugged RIO solution with a high-performance multicore processor. Finally, for high-performance test applications, the PXI platform includes multicore PXI controllers, PXI FPGA R Series modules, and the PXI and PXI Express NI FlexRIO FPGA and the NI FlexRIO adapter modules for custom test and communications applications.

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2. The NI RIO Software Platform

LabVIEW graphical system design tools are key to NI RIO technology. With LabVIEW, LabVIEW Real-Time, and LabVIEW FPGA technologies, engineers and scientists can program multicore processors and customize FPGAs on NI RIO hardware without needing low-level software or hardware design experience. The result is the ability to create customized embedded and test solutions without the cost and complexity of developing a custom solution.

With LabVIEW and LabVIEW Real-Time, engineers can program multicore and real-time processors with hundreds of floating-point functions for signal processing, control, communications, logging, and more. With LabVIEW tools, they can quickly build a professional user interface and integrate existing C code and text-based math. The LabVIEW FPGA Module provides a graphical way to program FPGAs, which reduces design complexity and allows any engineer or scientist to use FPGA technology. Included are built-in functions for fixed-point math, signal processing and control along with the ability to integrate existing HDL or Xilinx COREGen intellectual property (IP).

NI-RIO and LabVIEW drivers also make integrating I/O and interfacing between the different RIO hardware components easier than with traditional tools. LabVIEW includes I/O drivers, DMA, and single-point communications interfaces that make it simple to connect to I/O and interface between the processor and FPGA.

Figure 2. LabVIEW graphical system design tools offer a single approach to programming the entire RIO architecture, including multicore processors, FPGAs, and I/O.

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3. RIO Applications and the Future of RIO

Today thousands of engineers and scientists are using the NI RIO architecture within their applications. For example,embedded engineers within industries such as medical, robotics, and renewable energy use RIO products to quickly prototype and deploy applications. RIO products are also ideal for industrial applications and machines that require custom control and high-speed measurements. Test engineers are using high-performance RIO solutions to meet the needs of advanced test and validation applications, including custom RF measurements and hardware-in-the-loop (HIL) testing. NI is continuing to invest heavily in RIO technology and ensure the engineering and scientific communities have an ideal solution for solving problems within advanced embedded and test applications.

Read the RIO product and technology white paper.

This article first appeared in the Q2 2010 issue of Instrumentation Newsletter.

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