National Instruments, which always has had a strong focus on education, introduced its miniSystems educational products at its NIWeek conference in August. These miniature replicas of real-world systems plug into NI’s popular myDAQ digital trainer to provide system-level instruction for students.
Over the past several years, there has been a movement to emphasize systems in electronic education. While heavy component and circuit theory lectures still exist, institutions are learning from recent graduates that there is more work at the systems level than with circuit design. But implementing systems into engineering programs has been difficult and, not to mention, quite expensive. MiniSystems and NI’s LabVIEW block diagram-flow programming can help make the program transition smooth.
The miniSystems plug into NI’s myDAQ, which is a miniature trainer that implements a group of virtual instruments including a DMM, scope, function generator, and spectrum analyzer (see the figure). These instruments are implemented on a desktop or laptop with NI’s LabVIEW software. The myDAQ also includes three dc power supplies. This capability is accessed via the socket on the side of the unit. Students use it with an external prototyping breadboard to build, test, and experiment with circuits.
The myGrid miniSystem simulates a basic ac power grid. It uses a motor and a solar panel to show how power is generated, transmitted, and distributed in a residential setting across three houses. Courseware with the system illustrates power monitoring and permits students to switch houses with internal loads on and off to emulate the consumption of the ac power.
Using the software front panel, students take measurements to monitor the supply and demand on the grid. Students also can manually adjust the power generation to satisfy the power demand or explore the concept of a smart grid to automate the process. For example, if the load voltage drops below a specific value, the power station automatically increases the voltage to satisfy load conditions.
NI has three other miniSystems ready to go: myQuake, myVTOL, and myTemp. The myQuake uses a physical structure with sensors to monitor the mechanical characteristics of a building frame under a variety of earthquake conditions. The myVTOL implements a vertical takeoff and landing structure, and myTemp shows how to measure temperature and heating effects with multiple thermistors. A wide variety of other miniSystems is under development.
The myDAQ is very affordable for the common university student. Some universities have already begun to implement it in on-campus labs. Students can purchase the program for off-campus lab work for a discounted price of $175, which includes LabVIEW. The myGrid sells for $99, the myTemp for $95, and the myQuake for $189.