Ask any engineer about their favorite childhood toy, and you're likely to hear a list of nostalgic staples that sparked innovation in all of us who went on to solidify our calling with the title "engineer."
We loved these toys because they allowed us to think of an idea and then actually create it. But, what happens to these young innovators as they become engineering students and their ideas become more complex? Until recently, these students discovered that the gap between toys and industrial tools was an ocean of devices that either catered to their budding yet incomplete knowledge or provided the depth of technical functionality desired, but never both.
Identifying and understanding this deficiency, National Instruments (NI) wanted to create a solution that would provide the ease of learning that students need, while also giving them the power to release their creative potential within the time constraints of a class. For over 30 years, NI has witnessed some of the world's most established engineering companies, as well as some game-changing innovators, like CERN and SpaceX innovate and create incredible systems using our test and measurement technologies.
But what about the engineers of tomorrow? How do LEGO bricks and Tinker Toys progress to life-saving medical equipment or the next hybrid electric vehicle? For several years, NI has thought about this question and -- in 2013 -- provided an answer by releasing a new product for students -- NI myRIO. Inspired by the same technology NI has provided to industry customers for years, NI myRIO equips today's students with the tools of their future careers (click here to see a video).
NI myRIO is based on the same LabVIEW RIO architecture as NI's industrially used NI CompactRIO and NI Single-BoardRIO products. These products combine a processor, FPGA, and I/O, and are fully programmable with LabVIEW. In fact, NI myRIO uses the same Xilinx Zynq All-programmable SoC technology found in NI's newest CompactRIO, the cRIO-9068. Complete with 40 digital I/O lines, 10 analog inputs, 6 analog outputs, onboard accelerometer, LEDs and programmable button, students get to leverage copious reconfigurable I/O and boast the use of NI's first WiFi-enabled RIO product all in a handheld device.
But, the hardware is only half of the equation. Surely we can't expect students to jump into the same programming complexity as seasoned, professional engineers, right? Well, at NI, we agree. Fortunately, LabVIEW has provided the handshake between the possibilities of industry and the first-year college student.
NI ships the FPGA of myRIO pre-defined with AI, AO, PWMs, Quad Encoder inputs, UART, SPI, and I2C. Of course, using LabVIEW FPGA, students can choose to change this shipping personality if a project warrants it (and yes, they can always revert back to the default). While the NI myRIO processor and FPGA can be programmed in the exact same manner as its industrial counterparts, we wanted to offer students some help to quickly access I/O out of the box. LabVIEW provides 12 configuration-based Express VIs specifically for myRIO that allow for instant access to the pre-defined FPGA I/O without the need for extensive programming.
When students are ready expand their programming skills, they can view the underlying code of any myRIO Express VI and can begin using that code to program in a more advanced mode. All pre-built LabVIEW functionality for myRIO is open, meaning that a student has the option to explore even the lowest level handshake between processor and FPGA.
Students connect to their myRIO via USB (versus traditional Ethernet) or WiFi to deploy code and monitor results. The ultra familiar and ubiquitous USB connection removes the complexity associated with Ethernet connectivity and WiFi allows students to access their device remotely with their PC or tablet.
Rounding out the device's flexibility, students can also choose to leverage Linux and C/C++ to program the hardware with the popular Eclipse IDE.
When designing myRIO, NI engineers were adamant that students engage in real system design not upon graduation, but now. We specifically chose the features and massaged the user experience to transform engineering students into full-fledged system designers, even providing a free guide for incorporating common components.
Knowing that this product would play a role in the classroom with leading universities around the globe, NI is rolling out courseware that will address competencies in Embedded Systems, Controls and Mechatronics based on NI myRIO. In fact, Rice University has already incorporated NI myRIO into their Modeling Dynamic Systems curriculum using the popular haptic paddle force feedback device.
NI myRIO encourages students to let their ideas run wild and provides them with the hardware and software to get the job done. Based on NI's industry recognized RIO hardware, the latest gadget for young engineers is anything but a toy.
Check out the latest Waterloo Labs video -- The Paintball Picasso System. This system is controlled by the NI myRIO embedded controller and LabVIEW software that enables the system to be controlled is a variety of ways, including taking an image from a USB webcam in order to outline the person, shooting more than 10 paintballs per second.
You may rest assured that no students were harmed in the making of this video.
About the author
As product manager for Controls, Robotics, Mechatronics, and Embedded (CRoME) on National Instruments' Academic Marketing team, Margaret Barrett is responsible for building awareness of NI's offerings in the university space for these application areas. Margaret is a five-year veteran at National Instruments, where she began her career as an Applications Engineer and later transitioned to managing a subset of the AE department. Before joining National Instruments, she attended Texas A&M University where she earned a degree in biomedical engineering with an emphasis in biomechanics in addition to earning a minor in mathematics.