Instrument-Class I/O for FPGA hardware

13 November 2008

Four years ago, National Instruments introduced its first product to use FPGA (field-programmable gate array) technology, the CompactRIO. FPGA technology gives flexibility with low-level hardware customisation and onboard processing.


However, you need I/O to interface the FPGA controller with "real-world" signals.

Until now, there have been FPGA-based data acquisition devices with general purpose I/O which works with many applications,

But with the low-level customisation possiblilites that FPGA hardware offers, engineers are forever pushing the possibilites.

"It's a bit like purchasing a 54 inch high definition TV and then connecting it to your analogue VCR," says Vineet Aggarwal, product manager for N.I. "You may be ok with the picture quality, but you're never going to use that big screen TV to its full potential."


The FlexRIO FPGA module is the green PC card at the rear that interfaces directly to the PXI bus. On the front is the white FlexRIO adapter module. It can be purchased directly from NI in different configurations for analogue, digital, and video signals and will eventually be available from third party suppliers. NI will also supply a developer's kit for sophisticated users who want to build their own adapter modules.


To address this need, N.I. is now introducing a family of FPGA-based hardware for the PXI platform.

Called “FlexRIO,” the product family is said to be “industry’s first commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) solution to provide engineers with the flexibility of NI LabVIEW FPGA technology combined with high-speed, instrument-class I/O.”

The product allows engineers to add custom signal processing algorithms to their PXI-based field-programmable gate array (FPGA) hardware. Then, with interchangeable adapter modules, they can directly interface the FPGA to high-speed I/O or create their own custom front-end hardware.

This allows them to employ techniques such as in-line processing, hardware-in-the-loop (HIL) simulation and protocol-aware test that is required during the design and testing of complex electronic devices.

“LabVIEW FPGA technology will continue to transform instrumentation and extend graphical system design by providing software programmability at the hardware level,” said Dr. James Truchard, N.I. president. “NI FlexRIO gives engineers a way to solve applications that were previously impossible with COTS hardware.”

NI FlexRIO FPGA modules feature high-performance Xilinx Virtex-5 FPGAs that engineers can program using the LabVIEW FPGA Module.

Previously, FPGA technology was limited to hardware engineers with extensive knowledge in digital design, but LabVIEW FPGA makes this technology available to a broader class of engineers through intuitive graphical programming.

Using LabVIEW FPGA, engineers gain direct access to raw digital pins on the NI FlexRIO FPGA modules, with 66 differential lines at up to 1 Gb/s per pair or 132 single-ended lines at up to 400 Mb/s. In addition, NI FlexRIO FPGA modules offer deep onboard memory and the ability to use external clocks.

All NI FlexRIO implementations require two distinct hardware pieces – a PXI FPGA module and an adapter module, which defines the specific I/O capabilities of the system.

The first NI FlexRIO adapter module is the NI 6581 high-speed digital I/O adapter, which is targeted at algorithmic pattern generation and protocol-aware tests.

National Instruments says it has also worked with Averna to create a plug-and-play IEEE 1394b adapter module, and expects many additional modules to be available from third parties in the future.

NI will also provide a development kit for engineers to design their own custom adapter modules with the exact converters, buffers, clocks and connectors to meet their application needs.

CLICK HERE to watch a four-minute demonstration video on National Instruments’ web site (requires Flash 9)

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