AUSTIN, Texas — I have long had a strong interest in test equipment, but it is a rare opportunity to be in a live community of 4,000 people who are jazzed up about instrumentation and the creative opportunities it can enable. I'm on the scene at NI Week in Austin, Texas, and the event kicked off with an energetic and entertaining keynote that showcased some new products and creative applications.
First up was Dr. James Joseph Truchard, who emphasized the move from instrumentation and embedded systems to a combination of the two in "virtual instruments." He reflected on last year's launch of the vector signal transceiver. (See: National Instruments debuts integrated RF testing.) It is now being used in instrumentation applications in communications and RF (as we all expected), as well as to build software-defined radios. Truchard also reflected on where things are going next, echoing a conversation I was having with our own Larry Desjardin yesterday. Citing a study conducted in Germany, Truchard posited that a key component of the "fourth industrial revolution" will be cyber physical systems (CPS).
What is that? Later in the talk, Eric Starkloff, senior vice president of marketing at National Instruments, helped organize the semantics of the next generation of communications. CPS is really just the programmable systems that will change the way we do things, but Starkloff said what you call it will depend on your industry. For example, if you work in industrial automation, you may refer to it as Industrie 4.0 (a German term). In robotics/mechatronics, you may refer to it as CPS. In IT, it is known as the Internet of Things. Examples include a lawn sprinkler system that knows the weather report, so it doesn't water when it is about to rain.
Starkloff said such a programmable world is a platform-centric one. He gave shoutouts to some of the disruptive platforms in recent history, including the PC, the web, IoS, and Android. However, he also said: "Custom hardware design is dead. Everyone is working on a platform."
Of course, NI's flagship platform is LabView, and today the company released a new version of the software. Starkloff said the LabView apps store just surpassed 2 million downloads. Some highlights of LabView 2013 include improvements in code management, documentation, and debugging. For example, now you can create bookmarks in the code (a feature which garnered enthusiastic applause from the audience) and attach a comment to a node or structure in the diagram.
Next up, NI's Chad Chesney and Doug Farrell introduced the rugged Ethernet CompactDAQ (cDAQ-9188XT) chassis. Starkloff dramatically revealed the device by taking a sledgehammer to a cement block with the unit running inside it (and taking shock and force measurements). The eight-slot Ethernet chassis is designed for distributed or remote measurements in extreme environments. It can withstand temperatures from -40 to 70C, 50g of shock, and 5g of vibration.
Perhaps one of the coolest application reveals of the day came from Keith Zanghi, who works on the North American Eagle project, an effort to break the land speed record using a modified Lockheed F-104A-10 Starfighter. The people running that project are using the new cDAQ-9188XT to measure vibration, strain, and pressure around the vehicle. For you speed demons out there, the vehicle currently runs a mile in 4.2s. The team will attempt to break the speed record in October.
NI also announced its first product based on the Xilinx Zynq-7020 system on a chip (SoC), which combines a dual-core ARM Cortex-A9 processor and Xilinx 7 Series FPGA. The new NI cRIO-9068 software-designed controller performs four times faster than previous generations. It includes a Linux-based, real-time OS that provides more flexibility for LabVIEW Real-Time and C/C++ application developers, and an extended operating temperature range of -40 to 70C.
Omid Sojoodi, NI's director of embedded systems software, said his team put 60 man-years of development into Linux Real-Time and has since submitted all changes to the Linux kernel in the Linux community. The team then introduced Bob Leigh, president and CEO of Local Grid Technologies. He said that his company achieved 4X better performance with the new RIO, and that it took his developers less than a day to port everything over to the new platform prototype. The new RIO was officially released today.
Starkloff closed the keynote by saying, "Engineers and scientists, and the innovation that you create, are so important to improving the world." He thanked the audience for all they do to make the world a better place.