Blue-sky speaking

Innovation and exploration were thekey themes at NI Days 2010, at which Prof Brian Cox gave the first keynote speech.

One of the defining features of NI Days – National Instruments’ annual conference for engineers and scientists – is the diverse range of applications, disciplines, and technology areas that it touches on.

This year’s event, held in late November at the London headquarters of the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) was no exception.

And what better way to kick off a day dedicated to the broad sweep of engineering and scientific innovation than a keynote speech from perhaps the UK’s best known science communicator and broadcaster, Professor Brian Cox.

Over the last couple of years Cox has become an important spokesman for both the scientific and engineering community and a packed auditorium listened in rapt silence as he expanded on the theme “Why we need explorers”.

Cox put forward the case for blue-skies research, and  – touching on the invention of the internet and the discovery of antibiotics – highlighted the critical and unmeasurable role played by serendipity in driving some of mankind’s great innovations.

As Cox was keen to point out science and engineering are inextricably linked. Whether you want to collide atoms at close to the speed of light or probe the outer reaches of the solar system engineering is absolutely key. And in the keynotes that followed   there were plenty of reminders that NI’s ubiquitous products are frequently at the heart of some of the most interesting projects.

The finalists for the graphical system design case study  – which were revealed during the morning session – were a striking reminder of this.

From a Labview based system for detecting early signs of tooth decay to technology for, measuring fetal heart rates it was, once again,  the diverse range of applications that really impressed.

There was a particularly inspiring presentation by the Imperial College Team behind the Racing Green Endurance, an all-electric supercar that recently drove the length of the pan-American highway. As previously reported in the Engineer, the car’s control system, based on NI’s compactRIO control and acquisition system, was key to helping the team complete their mission.

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The Racing Green endurance car recently drove across the US

Other finalists included the control and data acquisition system for Wavebob’s wave farm energy converter, and the overall winner, a testing system for a novel heart assist device.

Under development by researchers from the University of Leeds, the intelligent Ventricular Assist Device (iVAD)  is a mechanical system designed to assist a failing heart  by applying compressive force around the surface of its ventricles. Traditionally such devices would be tested on animals, but by building a simulator again based on NI’s CompactRIO and Labview technologies the team have been able conduct prolonged testing that simply would not have been possible using traditional methods.

Away from the main auditorium, thirty hours of hands-on sessions showcasing NI’s latest tools and a busy conference programme gave delegates plenty to get their teeth into.

The conference programme was divided in to four main themes.

The Software and data acquisition thread explored the latest NI software – from the new features in NI’s Labview 2010  to advice on programming architectures for measurement systems in a range of applications. Meanwhile, the Test and Measurement sessions gave attendees valuable insight into new hardware and software tools for use in automated test applications, while the industrial and embedded technology sessions examined how NI tools can help simplify the development of new applications.

The fourth conference stream – Academic Summit – provided advice on how to enhance STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) teaching and research programmes. As well as presentations on how Labview can be used to teach a variety of concepts, NI also showcased NI ELVIS – an education design and prototyping platform that can help students understand a variety of engineering concepts from circuit design to telecommunications.