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Graphical System Design for Robotics Sparks Creativity and Innovation in Science and Engineering

Publish Date: May 01, 2012 | 4 Ratings | 3.25 out of 5 | Print

In 1983, Dr. Howard Gardner, an education professor at Harvard University, proposed that multiple intelligences exist: linguistic, logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalist. Today, there are many efforts directed at sparking student interest in engineering while also developing these multiple intelligences. Educators have found that the excitement of robotics captures student attention and provides a hands-on learning opportunity to explore multiple facets of intelligence.

Tools that offer students the ability to explore science and engineering concepts while developing and taking full advantage of their multiple intelligences are crucial. With NI LabVIEW graphical programming, students can focus on solving engineering problems rather than getting discouraged by low-level implementation details. LabVIEW provides very tight integration with I/O that encourages hands-on, project-based learning. As a system-level design platform, LabVIEW enables students to design, prototype, and deploy robots using a single, unified tool.

Today, LabVIEW is used in robotics applications in all levels of education, from kindergarten to university research. Not only are students learning math, science, and engineering concepts, they are learning a programming paradigm that enjoys wide industry adoption.

National Instruments collaborated with LEGO® Education to create WeDo, a robotic platform targeted toward nurturing hands-on learning in children as young as seven years old. Students can build simple robots that represent birds, alligators, airplanes, and more, which can be controlled using easy-to-use graphical software based on LabVIEW. Using a high-level system design tool such as one based on LabVIEW, children can bring their imagination to life, write stories about their creations, and interact with other children in the process.

Figure 1. LEGO Education WeDo is a robotic platform that nurtures hands-on learning in children as young as seven years old.

LEGO MINDSTORMS® NXT, based on LabVIEW graphical programming software, is another example of a robotics platform that empowers students as young as 10 years old to build robots and solve an engineering problem without getting discouraged by low-level programming and implementation details. Parallel programming with the onboard ARM7 microcontroller, algorithm design, and processing sensor data is easy using LabVIEW graphical programming. Competitions such as FIRST LEGO League (FLL) excel in getting students as young as nine years old to address real-world problems through research and robotics.

Figure 2. The FLL competition helps children as young as nine years old address real-world problems through research and robotics.

At the high school level, the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) brings students as close as possible to a real-world professional experience. Limited time, money, and resources challenge these students to be as collaborative as they are innovative. Starting in 2009, more than 50,000 students worldwide who participate in FRC will use the NI CompactRIO field-programmable gate array (FPGA) reconfigurable embedded controller as the “brain” for their robotic creations. For the competition, they can program the CompactRIO controller with either LabVIEW or ANSI-C. With the modular, rugged CompactRIO hardware, teams can perform sophisticated vision processing, operate autonomously or via joystick control, and interact with a wide variety of sensors and I/O. They must accomplish all of these tasks in a six-week period.

Figure 3. The CompactRIO FPGA reconfigurable embedded controller is the “brain” for FRC robotic creations.

Roboticists can use LabVIEW to easily implement the most current technology trends, such as multicore computing and parallel processing. Team Victor Tango, a partnership between Virginia Tech and TORC Technologies, used LabVIEW to implement multicore processing on their autonomous vehicle Odin. It finished third at the DARPA Urban Challenge. The team used dual quad-core servers and CompactRIO running LabVIEW applications to process light detection and ranging (LIDAR) data and autonomy algorithms.

Figure 4. The autonomous vehicle Odin finished third at the DARPA Urban Challenge.

Researchers at Nanyang Polytechnic (Singapore) used LabVIEW to integrate with sensors and motors and target to microcontrollers to develop an award-winning spider robot designed to support critical, life-saving rescue missions. The robot’s 24 smart DC motors, intelligent vision and distance sensors, and wireless communication were implemented on low-power Analog Devices (ADI) Blackfin processors and other processors for real-time parallel processing, and programmed using LabVIEW.

Figure 5. Researchers at Nanyang Polytechnic developed a spider robot that supports critical, life-saving rescue missions.

The hands-on, project-based, multidisciplinary approach is encouraged by robotics and promotes the learning modalities for development and nourishment of multiple skills and intelligences, while demonstrating key science and engineering concepts. Today, students and educators are finding that the intuitive, visual approach of LabVIEW graphical system design is an ideal environment for exploring robotics.

Anu Saha is an academic product manager for National Instruments. He holds bachelor’s degrees in computer engineering and electrical engineering from the University of Tennessee.   

Watch Dean Kamen talk about the new CompactRIO controller for FRC.

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