Instrument Maker Puts Education Center Stage

Under spotlights in the vast, dark Austin Convention Center hall, a trio of local high-school students remotely maneuvers a robot about the size and shape of an automatic dishwasher into position. There is a pause, then the William Tell Overture swells in the background and the machine fires a Frisbee across the stage to knock a 16-ounce water bottle off the head of Ray Almgren, marketing VP of National Instruments.

Almgren and the members of Team 2468, Westlake High’s FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) squad, are part of this year’s NI Week keynote session on engineering and science education.  The session offers a blueprint for hands-on programs and competitions that begin in grade school and continue through high-school, college, and sometimes to the moon. The materials change along with the stakes: Lego Mindstorms kits for robot Olympiads; student-built instrument packages for sub-orbital space experiments; and sophisticated entries in the Google Lunar X Prize, which will award $20 million (plus potential performance bonuses) to the “first privately funded teams to safely land a robot on the surface of the Moon, have that robot travel 500 meters over the lunar surface, and send video, images and data back to the Earth.”

The NI Week session makes a persuasive pitch for using robotics and competition to pull students—and imaginative adults—into hands-on projects that aid in understanding and overcoming engineering challenges.

Organized hands-on opportunities begin in grade schools with robotic kits such as the new Lego Mindstorms EV3 that started shipping 1 August (retail kits go on sale 1 September). Students can move on to FIRST engineering competitions, with Junior Lego Leagues for students ages six to nine, and the FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) for high school students (with some $16 million in college scholarships on the line). College students can participate in competitions like REXUS/BEXUS (Rocket and Balloon Experiments for University Students).

As NI Week made clear, engineering companies benefit from supporting these programs. The new third-generation Mindstorms EV3 comes standard with a graphical programming interface built on the company’s LabView platform—a system that allowed Austin grade-schooler David Bocanegra to program a candy-dish-protecting attack robot in less than five minutes onstage. For the record, the Mindstorms EV3 Intelligent Brick is based on Linux and runs on one of ARM’s “classic” processors, the ARM9.  More about this platform continuity in a moment.

As Erico Guizzo reported in IEEE Spectrum at the end of April, National Instruments will continue to produce controllers for the FIRST Robotics Competition. The Team 2468 robot that shot the bottle off of Almgren’s head was governed by an NI reconfigurable embedded I/O controller, an earlier-generation CompactRIO. This year, NI introduced an updated CompactRIO (cRIO-9068). The new device is based on the Xilinx Zynq-7020 system-on-a-chip, which weds an ARM dual-core Cortex-A9 processor with an 85,000-logic-cell FPGA (field-programmable gate array) fabric. The new RIO pairs the Zynq with a new Linux-based operating system the company says gives users more customization power. This includes control over drivers, real-time extensions, programming the controller via C/C++ and Java, in addition to the LabView graphical design system.

The company announced that it was expanding its family of educational products with two offspring geared to students—roboRIO (for competitors in high-school robotics challenges) and myRIO (for those studying science and engineering in college). Both devices use the same Zynq chip, Linux OS, and programming tools as their cRIO-9068 parent.  During the presentation, Almgren confirmed that one roboRIO will be donated to every FRC team in time for the 2015 competition. The roboRIO is half the size and one-quarter of the weight of the modified CompactRIO that has been at the heart of the FRC parts kit since 2009. It’s also faster and smarter, and has been designed for extra shock and vibration tolerance.

The university-oriented myRIO is also smaller than the cRIO—deliberately engineered to fit in a student backpack and withstand the rigors of being thrown around—while delivering both the power and ease-of-use needed to successfully complete student projects under strict time constraints.  

Another of the competing teams closed the program. Carnegie Mellon professor (and winner of the US $2 million first prize in the third DARPA Grand Challenge for autonomous robotic vehicles in 2007) William “Red” Whittaker stood beside his team’s Griffin the lunar lander, their entry in the Google Lunar X Prize. Whittaker talked about how graphic systems design tools and new FPGA-based controls will increase the mission’s odds of success by accelerating landing calculations more than 100-fold and giving the rovers (there are several designs tailored for specific missions) the ability to operate autonomously while exploring lunar tropics, poles, and caves.

Videos for the NI Week Day 3 education session, “To Inspire Future Innovators,” are available online.

Images: National Instruments; Astrobotic Technology

 

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