National Instruments Is Leading a Quiet Technological RevolutionNational Instruments Is Leading a Quiet Technological Revolution

12 Oct

Thirty-five years ago, Dr. James Truchard, fresh from getting his PhD, realized that if he wanted to get a job he liked, he’d have to make it himself. From that idea, National Instruments was born in a Texas garage with a small business loan. When I spoke to him recently, he told me that he “liked the idea of working with cool applications and challenges.”

“Dr. T.” as he’s known by his colleagues, started with a focus on testing and instrumentation. This led to the development of LabVIEW in 1986. LabVIEW is a system design software which was designed to improve the testing and measurement of systems for engineers. Pretty soon, though, it was clear that LabVIEW could do more than that.

Doing More Tests With Smaller Teams In Less Time

What LabVIEW has meant for testing is increased productivity – the ability to do more in less time with fewer people, while still achieving the same results.

In building the James Webb Space Telescope, for example. NASA anticipated that they would need about 600 programmers and several years to design and test due to the 50,000+ actuated mirrors on the telescope. Using LabVIEW, however, they were able to complete the project with only 2 programmers over the course of a few months. That’s an impressive achievement.

“It’s a return to the age of Edison,” Dr. Truchard tells me. “LabVIEW enables small teams can get amazing results, in a short period of time.”

The PC of Embedded Systems?

Embedded systems, which is a computer and hardware dedicated to a few or even one task, don’t garner the same headlines as “sexier” general computing products like tablets or ultrathin laptops. But in the industrial world, they’re often much more important.

Because of LabVIEW’s capabilities, National Instruments has been applying it to improving embedded systems in a big way, and their goals are equally big.

“We want to be to embedded systems what the PC was to computing,” Dr. Truchard says. “One standardized platform for maximizing productivity.”

To that end, National Instruments has been applying their software to a number of big challenges. They’ve worked with CERN on the Large Hadron Collider, SpaceX on their projects, and are actively involved in green energy.

“We were all over fuel cells in mid-2000’s, then suddenly that wasn’t so hot,” said Dr. Truchard. “So now we’re focusing on Smart Grids for wind and solar power.”

Revolutionizing Robotics

Of particular interest to me, though, are the possibilities that LabVIEW holds for robotics. I spoke with Dr. Dave Barrett, a former VP at iRobot who now teaches robotics at Olin College and is currently visiting at MIT. I asked him what makes LabVIEW a good platform for robotics, and his answer was straightforward: “It may be the best currently available robotics development system.”

He even gave me a long writeup that includes the “10 Reasons LabVIEW Rocks for Robotics.” The first of which is simple – it doesn’t take long to learn. About two weeks to get up and running, and only eight weeks to programming complex robots. This first impressed him at the DARPA Urban Challenge “when Virginia Tech’s LabVIEW powered car beat our MIT race vehicle.”

Virginia Tech had a team of five undergrads using LabVIEW. MIT’s team had 20 post-docs.

“It wasn’t a question of more brainpower,” explains Brian Powell, who is National Instrument’s Technical Evangelist. “It was just a question of having better tools.”

The advantage that LabVIEW has over traditional robotics programming, Powell explains, is that it’s a “top to bottom system.” Since it had large uses in embedded systems, it’s already there to act in a manner that Dr. Barrett describes as “Sense – Think – Act.” The focus of the programming is on interacting with the world, with the processing going on in between.

What’s more, explains Powell, is that the fundamentals are so basic that it can be applied across the board for autonomous systems applications. “Kids can use it to program Lego robots, while physicists can use it to program the Large Hadron Collider.”

Dr. Barrett appreciates that when it comes to teaching his own robotics students. “Students from all backgrounds can pick up the graphical programming much easier that the traditional text based languages.” As a result, his students have done some amazing projects, from unmanned vehicles to robot fish to medical robots.

Unleashing Creativity

For my own part, from talking with Dr. Barrett, Dr. Truchard, and Brian Powell, I’m more than a little impressed at what LabVIEW is capable of doing. It co-exists comfortably in the technological paradigm that I’ve evangelized here before: using technology to free creative scientific and engineering minds from the “grunt work” so they can focus on innovation, creative thinking, and design. And I think that LabVIEW will be a great tool to launch that paradigm into the present.

I can’t wait to see what challenges Dr. T and his team take on next.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: