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Just a small sampling of the cool projects coming from a good friend, Pom Yuan Lam, at Nanyang Polytechnic in Singapore.

Here’s a technical case study on how Pom designed the spider robot. Hopefully I can get Pom to share some Robot Recipes for these bots in the near future…


Well, I found out what the countdown was for. Today, National Instruments released new software specifically for robot builders, LabVIEW Robotics. One of the many perks of being an NI employee is that I can download software directly from our internal network, free of charge, so I decided to check this out for myself. (Note: This blog post is not a full product review, as I haven’t had much time to critique the product, so this will simply be some high-level feature highlights.)

While the product video states that LabVIEW Robotics software is built on 25 years of LabVIEW development, right off the bat, I notice some big differences between LabVIEW 2009 and LabVIEW Robotics. First off, the Getting Started Window:

For anyone not already familiar with LabVIEW, this won’t sound like much to you, but the Getting Started Window now features a new, improved experience, starting with an embedded, interactive Getting Started Tutorial video (starring robot-friend Shelley Gretlein, a.k.a. RoboGret). There’s a Robotics Project Wizard in the upper left corner that, when you click on it, helps you set up your system architecture and select various processing schemes for your robot. At first glance, it looks like this wizard is best suited for when you’re using NI hardware (i.e. sbRIO, cRIO, and an NI LabVIEW Robotics Starter Kit), but looks like in future software updates, it might include other, 3rd-party  processing targets (perhaps ARM?)

The next big change I noticed is the all-new Robotics functions palette. I’ve always felt that LabVIEW has been a good programming language for robot development, and now it just got better, with several new robotics-specific programming functions, from Velodyne LIDAR sensor drivers to A* path planning algorithms. There looks to be hundreds of new VIs that were created for this product release.

Which leads to me to the Example Finder. There’s several new robotics-specific example VIs to choose from to help you get started. There’s some examples that help you connect to third-party software, like Microsoft Robotics Studio or Cogmation robotSim. There’s examples for motion control and steering, including differential drive and mechanum steering. There’s also full-fledge example project files for varying types of UGV’s for you to study and copy/paste from, including the project files for ViNI and NIcholas, two, NI-built demonstration robots. And if that’s not enough, NI has launched a new code exchange specifically for robotics, with hundreds of additional examples to share and download online. ( A little birdie told me that NI R&D will be contributing to the code available on this code exchange in between product releases as well.)

This is just my taste of the new features this product has. To get the official product specs and features list, you’ll have to visit the LabVIEW Robotics product page on I also found this webcast, Introduction to NI LabVIEW Robotics, if you care to watch a 9 minute demo.

A more critical product review will be coming soon.

Looks like the robot revolution has begun.


On November 23, President Obama announced the Educate to Innovate campaign, to improve the participation and performance of America’s students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). The campaign will include efforts not only from the Federal Government but also from leading companies, foundations, non-profits, and science and engineering societies to work with young people across America to excel in science and math.

“As president, I believe robotics can inspire young people to pursue science and engineering,” says Mr. Obama.

Here here!

Robotics is challenging, at times frustrating, for many reasons. As Dr. Ben Black had put it: “A roboticist has to have at minimum a working knowledge of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science / engineering and controls engineering.”

So it’s hard, to say the least. But it’s also really cool. And any young kid interested in robotics is going to get a taste of several different engineering disciplines. What better way to bring the U.S. to the top of the world-wide list in science and math education, than with robotics?

I’m obviously not the only one on this bandwagon. National Instruments invests a lot in STEM education. And so has Dean Kamen’s foundation, For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology ( FIRST). FIRST has been a driving force in changing the perception of science and technology in highschool students, using robotics design competitions as a lure. NI has partnered with FIRST to provide the FIRST Robotics Compeition (FRC) control system, which includes a high-performance, industrial-grade real-time controller (NI donated CompactRIOs for the FRC Kit of Parts).

With the mission and success of FRC, it is no surprise that Mr. Obama introduced the Cougar Cannon, an FRC robot from Oakton Highschool. Students provided a demonstration of their robot in action, the flickering sounds of camera flashes almost deafening. Even The MythBusters crew was there, as onlookers to the Lunacy competition robot. Booya!

“I also want to keep an eye on those robots in case they try anything, ” said Obama.

Don’t worry, Mr. President. As stated in my updated version of Asimov’s 3 Laws of Robotics, “With Will Smith alive, no robotic apocalypse is possible.”

Here’s the full White House presentation, worth watching:

more about “ FIRST Robotics Meets the President“, posted with vodpod

We’ve been waiting for USB 3.0 for 2 years, so long in fact that the next, next generation technologies are starting to emerge. Back in September, Intel demonstrated its new Light Peak technology, aimed to bring fiber optics mainstream. The technology is intended as a single replacement for all current PC buses such as USB, HDMI, FireWire, VGA, audio, and Cat5. It could not only replace our current cables for connecting devices to our PC, but also all of the cables inside our PC. Light Peak supports data transfer rates starting at 10 gigabits per second (twice the rates of USB 3.0) and has the potential to scale to 100 gigabits per second.

Although it sounds far off, it’s closer than you would think. Intel says it is almost ready to be integrated into devices. One company, Foci Fiber Optic, even has plans for mass production starting in early 2010. Some reports have speculated that Intel has postponed plans to integrate USB 3.0 into its chipsets until 2011 showing preferences to its own Light Peak technology. Regardless of which technology gets standardized, either will help eliminate many of the high-speed data streaming challenges presented in data acquisition applications today.



Ok, so now things are getting really interesting. I mentioned last week that there are rumors of a Robot Revolution happening sometime soon. Well, check out this surprise visitor who came by Building C the other day, just to chat it up with some of our employees in the lobby:

His name is Millennia. If he looks familiar, it’s because he’s cousins with a somewhat-famous robot: Paulie’s Robot, from Rocky IV. Can you see the likeness?:

He’s real name is Sico and both Sico and Millennia were created by Robert Doornick, CEO of International Robotics, Inc. He came by NI the other day to show off his latest addition to his robot family. I am told Millennia is quite the ladies man; he was a total flirt with the women who came to his visit.

But these robots do more than make surprise guest appearances in campy, 80’s movies and the lobbies of Austin tech companies. Here’s what Robert Doornick had to say about his company, International Robotics:

Our 35 year old research group has been involved in the pioneering science of Technology-to-People Behavioral Psychology. This represents the study of the interrelationships between humans and machines. Our mission as technology psychologists is to assist the robotic industry in the development of various protocols for how future intelligent machines will need to be programmed, designed and engineered in order to gain long term acceptance as they cohabit with humankind.

Interesting. Robots aiming to coexist with NI employees. I believe my suspicions are being confirmed….


Robot Revolution Countdown

Posted by JenniferW Nov 17, 2009

National Instruments is cooking up something in the kitchen, and it smells delicious.

We’ve been focusing a lot on robotics lately, as LabVIEW and NI FPGA hardware have been proven as useful tools for rapid development of sophisticated robots. But recently, there’s been a lot of internal hype around robotics and I’m not quite sure what to make of it.

It all started when I saw this poster in one of our elevators:

And today, on NI’s Developer Community,  I just found this countdown tool featuring a  Robot Revolution:

Seems like some answers will come around the beginning of December. If you click on the image, you can sign up to be on the notification list of whatever announcement NI is going to make.

What is going on? I hope this doesn’t mean our robot overlords are taking over the world soon. I was still trying to make a couple more robot friends before I became their human slave. Save us, Will Smith!


So if you’ve been following the phenomenal DIY application that has made it to sites like Gizmodo and, you might be interested in the detailed How-To docs that the guys behind this wicked-awesome app created. Just in case you haven’t checked out their blog ( which you should!), here’s some of the technical materials they’ve shared with us:

  1. Technical Tutorial: Remotely Controlled Automobile – iPhone, Power Wheels, Laptop — Includes system overview as well as a grocery list of all the hardware used
  2. Technical White Paper: Use of Prototyping tools in the “Drive a Car with an iPhone” Video — Lists the software used to rapidly prototype the control system, including LabVIEW
  3. Open Source Code: Code for iPhone Controlled Car — Download the zip file that contains the LabVIEW project and all subVIs that they used in order to control the Oldsmobile with an iPhone, Power Wheels, and Laptop

And there’s plenty more tutorials they’ve created to help explain exactly how they did it. Check them out.



How do you turn an Oldmobile Delta 88′ (affectionately named Wendy) into a remote controlled car? There’s an app for that. Check out what some NI engineers created in their spare time:

Check out other projects from these car-surfing cowboys at


When good robots go bad…

Posted by JenniferW Nov 5, 2009

Mainstream television and film have given robots a bad rep. Many people carry the stigma that robots could turn against us, when really, they are performing tasks that are too dull, dirty and/or dangerous for humans to do on their own.

An interesting study was cited today on, where scientists at University of Washington warn consumers about the vulnerabilities our household robots may suffer and what kind of situations that might pose to their masters (think iRobot). I was contacted by the article’s author, Diane Mapes, to discuss the likelyhood of our household robots revolting against us. I tend to think that it’s highly doubtful you’d find yourself being vacuumed to death by your Roomba.

But what our conversation did entertain was the idea that one could take control and/or reprogram your vacuuming robot with a malicious content. It was quite an interesting and enjoyable conversation; there’s a spectrum of motives and possibilities.  Take a closer look here.

So what do you think? Any Roomba or Spykee owners feeling a little exposed? Is it really something we should be concerned about? Or shall we continue opening up our families to robotic additions?




This tasty chunk of code comes from the RoboSavvy Forum, a great place for hobbyist and robotics enthusiasts to find low-cost robotics kits, materials and information.

Mr. Richard van der Wolf from the Netherlands created his own open-source RoBoIO library in LabVIEW, which allows you to communicate with and control the Roboard RB-100. This board is compatible with several robot kits that are already out there, including the Kondo Humanoid Robot ( KHR), Hitec’s Robonova, the Robotis Bioloid and Robobuilder. In addition, if you build your own hardware platform from scratch, you have plenty of communication standard options to choose from. You can find all the info you would need on the board’s hardware here, on the RoboSavvy site.

And here’s Mr. van der Wolf’s LabVIEW code (man, I wish my name was cool like that):

If you run into any issues, I suggest you hit up this forum thread, as it’s specific to the LabVIEW files for the RB-100. Thanks RoboSavvy!


Some robot funnies

Posted by JenniferW Oct 26, 2009

Compliments of one of my favorite web comic strip sites (that caters specifically to geeks like me),

Are you a robot?

Are you a robot?

The Terminator, perhaps more accurate.


Windows 7 Sensor API

Posted by JenniferW Oct 1, 2009

Recently, Martin Rowe of Test & Measurement World wrote a very insightful article on the upcoming Windows 7 Sensor API. Our own engineers had already started evaluating its potential for DAQ applications, but I have to admit that this article really got us thinking. Is Microsoft interested in data acquisition?


The idea is straightforward: provide a common (Windows-based) API for interfacing with sensors so your applications can be hardware- or even vendor-agnostic. (For those of you thinking that this sounds a lot like IVI (interchangeable virtual instruments) for benchtop instruments, you're on the right track.) The official product name is the Windows 7 Sensor and Location Platform, and their list of supported sensor types includes GPS, accelerometer, light, compass, camera, microphone, temperature, etc. Microsoft seems to be targeting mobile and portable applications those involving laptops, netbooks, or maybe even smartphones (one day).


The API itself is relatively simple; there's already ample documentation on MSDN under Sensor API. With plenty of examples for light sensors and GPS receivers, it's clear that this is intended for location-aware applications. However, it does not appear that this API will be targeting the test and measurement space anytime soon. For one, the list of supported sensor types is a bit too narrow (so far), and there is no straightforward way to handle important settings such as sampling rate, triggering, excitation, etc. That being said, some enterprising engineer will surely figure out a way to make it work.


After Windows 7 is officially released later this month, we will likely hear more about this new feature. In fact, you may even see your thermocouples show up in Control Panel one day. In the meantime, however, check out Microsoft's Windows Sensor and Location Platform page for more information.




Measuring with electrical sensors is so… passe! The new kids on the block: optical sensors. These come in many forms, shapes and form factors, and are mostly derived from the telecom boom in the late nineties. There is more and more interest for this type of sensor, especially in the area of structural monitoring.


There are two groups of optical sensors: instrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic optical sensors change the property of light within the fiber itself, while extrinsic optical sensors change the property of light outside the fiber. An example of extrinsic optical sensor is a simple on/off light detector, which outputs a digital ‘1′ when there is light and a ‘0′ when light is not present. Extrinsic sensors are often used in security systems, toys and more.


Intrinsic optical sensors are not quite as common as extrinsic sensors. An example is Fiber Bragg grating (FBG) sensors. FBG sensors are created by “etching” periodic variation of refractive index to create a mirror that only reflects a certain frequency of light, or commonly known as color. As the fiber expands/contracts due to strain or temperature variations, the color reflected by the FBG changes.


The optical fiber with embedded sensors can be seen mounted on the wing

The optical fiber with embedded sensors can be seen mounted on the wing.




Optical strain gauges are being evaluated and used by NASA, and you can see them mounted on an aircraft wing. They are also used by civil engineers in structural monitoring for buildings and bridges.


Engineers and scientists are now starting to see value in optical sensing and instead of adapting telecom technologies for sensing, are designing new innovative products and solutions tailored for measurement applications.


What are the advantages over electrical sensors you ask? It’s immune to corrosion, electro-magnetic inteference and lightning, it allows for many sensors on one single fiber, and requires no calibration. It’s a dream come true! – Nathan




So you probably have heard about USB 3.0, the faster, better, next generation USB. In fact, its name also points to the improvement in speed: USB 2.0 was called hi-speed USB, and now the new USB 3.0 is called Superspeed. Clever, no? USB 3.0 has been in the news for 2 years now, with nothing to show.


Well, it's quickly becoming a reality. Just recently, the USB-IF organization created a peripheral development kit, which includes two PCIe extensible host controller interface (xHCI) for USB 3.0, a USB 3.0 cable, and some documentation. This kit will give USB 3.0 device developers something they can develop on.


The added speed will give you capabilities for applications like USB 3.0 Blueray, and be very useful for high-performance, synchronized and simultaneous data acquisition.


So keep your eyes peeled, it's coming to a PC near you!

USB 3.0 Development Kit


FPS with Real Guns

Posted by JenniferW Sep 8, 2009

Okay, this is one is a little crazy: these guys are playing Half-Life, with real guns. Is it necessary? No. Is it cool? Hell yeah!  This is how they did it: they projected a first person shooter (FPS) game on a dry wall with 4 mounted accelerometers. Using the vibration measurements and graphical software, they were able to determine where exactly the bullet landed, and feed the coordinates to the host PC, where it converts it into a shot in the videogame. The key DAQ ingredient for this? Tightly synchronized, simultaneous 24-bit ADCs.




Member since: May 11, 2009

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