The dead pig

Putting on a big trade event such as National Instruments’ NIWeek in Austin, Texas, takes a lot of time and effort. For not only does the company use the occasion to highlight its own new hardware and software products, it also goes to great lengths to demonstrate the successful uses to which its technology has been put by many of its customers.

This year was no exception. On the trade show floor and during the keynote sessions, attendees were presented with a plethora of examples where the company’s technologies had been deployed – in an automated recycling station designed like an ATM that could automatically price and buy back mobile phones; in an all electric car designed and developed at Imperial College; and in a humanoid robot capable of carrying human beings.

But there was one system that was sadly missing from the event. And one that National Instruments events manager Chris Bombarger admitted to me that he would have dearly loved to have featured there – if he could have done so.

The system in question was a pipeline inspection gauge (PIG) developed by a Brazilian outfit called EngeMOVI. In use, the PIG is inserted into a pipeline and propelled along by the pressure of the oil or gas in the pipeline at a maximum speed of 8m/s, where it examines deformations and corrosion anomalies, helping prevent failures that can cause ecological accidents.

To continually collect and process data from more than 20 sensors at high data-acquisition rates for more than 60 hours, the engineers at EngeMOVI chose to base the design of their PIG around a National Instruments CompactRIO controller with a field-programmable gate array (FPGA) – a design that they figured would be small, shock resistant and powerful enough to sustain the harsh requirements the PIG would encounter on its mission.

And indeed, after nearly one year of commercial operation in Brazil and Colombia, the CompactRIO controller withstood these severe conditions rather well. Up until the engineers made a fatal operational mistake that saw the PIG collide with the end of a pipeline, which smashed it up rather badly.

The result of the unfortunate accident was that the data-acquisition boards inside the PIG were totally destroyed. But all was not lost. The National Instruments real-time controller, after it had been dried and cleaned, still functioned and the engineers were able to rescue the data from a 40-hour mission.

This of course, was of no joy to the wretched Chris Bombarger, who would have preferred to feature a working PIG at this year’s NIWeek. Unable to import a complete system, he considered bringing the smashed up remains of the PIG to the show instead to demonstrate the ruggedness of the National Instruments system that had been used inside it.

Sadly though, he couldn’t, and that was a pity. Because, after all, sometimes a system that has been destroyed can tell just as important a story as a bright shiny new one that is still in one piece!

Dave Wilson
Editor, Engineeringtalk

Dave’s comments form part of the weekly Engineeringtalk newsletter, which also includes a round-up of the latest engineering products and services. To subscribe click here