Engineering the tools of discovery

04 February 2014

At the annual NI Day in London, Jeff Kodosky, co-founder of National Instruments and the Inventor of LabVIEW, spoke about the company’s mission to equip engineers and scientists with the tools to accelerate productivity, innovation and discovery.

Rapid advances in technology are enabling scientists to gain a deeper understanding of the mechanisms of life – from the molecular level to the cellular level and to the complete organism. 

LabVIEW has an important role in scientific research today, helping to design, build and run experimental apparatus. It can accelerate research, and the discoveries that follow, by making the process faster and more efficient. “When we first introduced LabVIEW we were trying to make it easier to automate and use benchtop instruments in the test environment. However, we soon found that scientists and researchers in many fields were embracing LabVIEW as a means to accelerate research productivity.”

 “For example, a key tool used by physicists is the particle accelerator. The main challenge with any accelerator is to deliver a beam as efficiently as possible and that means minimising the amount of the beam lost to collision with the edge of the vacuum pipe that contains the beam.”

In the ISIS Synchrotron, at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, in the UK, there are 39 beam loss monitors distributed around the circumference of the synchrotron. These can indirectly detect protons striking the edge of the beam pipe. There are also a pair of 40 channel beam profile montiors which measure the intensity versus the horizontal distance across the beam pipe. Using LabView data can now be acquired over the whole acceleration cycle at double the previous sample rate and at 16 times the previous resolution. Monitoring overall beam loss, as well as the position and profile, makes it possible to analyse the behaviour and adjust parameters to minimise loss and improve performance.

LabVIEW is also playing a role in environmental research projects. For example, to look at the effects of the melting glaciers on global sea levels. “LabVIEW and PXI were used in the design of a new radar system that is being used by The British Antarctic Survey. Kodosky explained further: “LabVIEW was used to design the user interface and all ice acquired data, to manage system configuration and record the radar acquired ice depth soundings and acquire real time data display. The ruggedness of the PXI system enabled it to perform in sub zero temperatures and at high vibration levels.” 

Looking back at LabVIEW’s roots, Kodosky explained that it was originally conceived as a tool to help automated test and measurement applications. “We connected instruments to computers and used LabVIEW software to create a virtual instrument, where the computer controlled the attachments and processed and analysed the data from them and displayed the results on the computer screen. 

“Over the years more and more of the attached instruments have been replaced with modular plug in instruments, lowering costs and leveraging the processing power of the computer and its display graphics and riding Moores Law to ever greater performance. We will continue to do this.”

Kodosky identified two key milestones in the LabVIEW story . The first being the introduction of LabVIEW RealTime. “We were persuaded by some of our  visionary customers that our graphical programme for test and measurement was equally applicable to real time control. “Once we got LabVIEW to run on a real time operating system it was able to run deterministically.” 

The second milestone was the introduction of LabVIEW FPGA. “We saw the FPGA technology emerging but were not sure how it might be used. However, once we had a prototype it became clear just how valuable it could be for precise IO timing and very high-speed control applications.”

“Today we find that the platform we originally built has a much broader utility than was originally envisioned and we need a new term to describe this. This is ‘graphical system design’ which sees LabVIEW and FPGA-based reconfigurable I/O to design, prototype and deploy test and measurement systems, real time control systems and embedded systems.”

Graphical system design enables scientists and engineers to explore and prototype new designs in a fraction of the time and effort than was possible using traditional tools. The result is increased productivity and accelerated innovation and discovery. 

And what of the future? Kodosky concluded: “We will continue to deliver our vision to equip scientists and engineers with the tools they need to help solve the important challenges we face today and to inspire the next generation of innovators to follow in their path and solve tomorrows challenges.”

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