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Microcontroller based intelligent platform for research and education in mechatronics

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The microcontroller based intelligent platform is a combination of technology and methodology developed for mechatronics education and research. Students can use the platform for mechatronics coursework and hands-on experiments not only in the university lab but also at home or whatever place they can imagine. Only an Internet connected computer is needed. At the same way university staff or researchers can run microcontroller based experiments over the web in case of complex algorithms where different sensors and actuators are involved and need to be tested. The paper introduces the methodology and associated technical concept as well as giving closer look to the hardware systems. Experience of applying the platform in Estonia and Germany is shortly summarized in the last chapter.
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Figure 1. Robotic Teaching and Learning Concept
Microcontroller Based Intelligent Platform for
Research and Education in Mechatronics
R. Sell
Department of Mechatronics
Tallinn University of Technology
Tallinn, Estonia
S. Seiler, D. Ptasik
Institute of Computer Science
Bochum University of Applied Sciences
Bochum, Germany
Abstract The microcontroller based intelligent platform is a
combination of technology and methodology developed for
mechatronics education and research. Students can use the
platform for mechatronics coursework and hands-on
experiments not only in the university lab but also at home or
whatever place they can imagine. Only an Internet connected
computer is needed. At the same way university staff or
researchers can run microcontroller based experiments over the
web in case of complex algorithms where different sensors and
actuators are involved and need to be tested. The paper
introduces the methodology and associated technical concept as
well as giving closer look to the hardware systems. Experience of
applying the platform in Estonia and Germany is shortly
summarized in the last chapter.
Keywordsmicrocontroller kit; distance lab; virtual lab;
learning methodology, wireless programming
I. INTRODUCTION
The education in the mechatronics has got a lot of attention
in the last decade and its importance is still increasing. This
seems to be a logical process, as these fields have entered into
everyday life, and smart products are more and more spread
into homes. Most of these devices are mechatronic devices in
their nature, what means that they consist of software in
addition to mechanical and electrical parts. Therefore a good
education in the mechatronics but also in microcontroller
programming is necessary to assure quality and a continuous
advancement in the future.
It is quite a challenge for educational institutions to keep up
with the high pace of technological innovation. The availability
of (expensive) ICT based learning material for learners; a lack
of functional qualified teaching staff and also lack of place in
classes for capacious equipment are the main identified
problems.
Best way to encounter the current and more important
future high demand of professional in the mechatronics is to
begin quite early to delight young people with this technology.
This can be ensured by exploiting modern ICT based content,
beginning in school, covering as well vocational and also
university educational level. Another important point is to
exploit modern Internet technology for education to make
mechatronics more attractive for young people.
Within the following sections the different parts of the
overall concept are introduced, which have been developed in
the frame of joint EU projects ([1], [2], [3], [4]) since 2007,
followed by detailed descriptions of each subpart.
II. EDUCATIONAL CONCEPT
In educational concept a similar idea is denoted by different
authors as Mechatronic Learning Concept [5], [6] or in our
research [7, 8] also as Robotic Blended Learning Concept,
however in this paper the teaching aspect is also empathized in
addition to learning, even when it is still primary key factor of
getting new knowledge, especially in mechatronics. Pointing
out the teaching aspects is quite important, as high level
domains like robotic, needs innovative teaching approaches
and methods. Relying on the conventional lecture-practice
method is not applicable here and does not reach the young
people. It is easy to lose first interests if the teaching methods
are not modified according to young people needs, where the
most important communication channel is the Internet. About
exploiting the possibilities of Web 2.0 the mechatronics study
is much more effective and the initial attractiveness of the field
is not violated.
The Robotic Teaching and Learning Concept (RTLC) as an
educational concept, drawn out in Fig. 1, is targeting to the
Figure 2. Technical concept
extend learners knowledge of intelligent systems. By applying
the concept, the learning outcome is expected to be much
higher which is archived however with less resource like - time
and equipment. The novel study aids, in form of a large set of
material, exercises and tutorials to directly use the new
hardware makes it different from known implementations,
where at first stage a longer investment of time is needed in
teaching the basics. The RTLC was applied and tested in
Estonia, as well as in German and it turned out, the learning
curve was a lot more rapidly rising, then with conventional
solutions on the market.
The important aspect of the concept is the collaboration
and cooperation, especially the international one, in editing the
practical examples, exercises and study material in one place,
in the Network of Excellence (NoE), which is in fact an
accompanying wiki system to the RTLC. The importance of
international collaboration is quite obvious the global
competence and being successful in multi-cultural team are the
key factors of future career. The concept described in Fig. 1
draws up the teacher's and student tools supporting the learning
process. However the tools are obviously overlapping, for
example traditional textbooks and modern hardware kits are
used by both parties. Although the web support environment is
also intended for teachers and students, there is a special
section which is available only for teachers. It is possible to
create also closed groups in the project environment, if the
material is not intended for the public view, like in most wiki
systems. Nevertheless most of information and source is
available for public and does not even require the registration.
III. TECHNICAL CONCEPT
The technical concept is a hardware and web technology
base for Robotic Teaching and Learning Concept. Main
components of technical concept are shown on Fig. 2, where
connections between different systems are outlined. Main
hardware platform is a Robotic HomeLab kit [9] which is a
microcontroller based modular system for hands-on lab and
experiments. Modules are providing different topics of robotics
study or experiment but offering is as a mobile standalone test
bed without need of specific lab space and equipment. Around
the Robotic HomeLab kit several sub-systems are developed
providing additional access and support for learners and other
users. Based on latest web technology, remotely accessible
systems the VirtualLab and the DistanceLab are developed,
which are fully compatible with the Robotic HomeLab kit in
their technical side. The DistanceLab provides online access to
real hardware devices which are built up from Robotic
HomeLab modules. Online access enables to make robotic and
Figure 3. The Robotic HomeLab kit controller board and modules
mechatronic experiments over the Internet without a need of
any special hardware. This is a good option for students who
have no HomeLab kits available or in case kits are used only in
schools and are not allowed to bring them to home. However,
by using the DistanceLab, students can continue the
experiment over the Internet and get the feedback over the
online video camera stream. The third lab the VirtualLab is a
similar system as DistanceLab but running in a simulated
virtual environment. This means that no real hardware is
involved. However the simulated environment is designed to
reflect as much as possible the real hardware and it is
convenient to test the user algorithm on the VirtualLab first and
then move to the real hardware platform.
IV. HARDWARE OVERVIEW ROBOTIC HOMELAB
KIT
The Robotic HomeLab kit is a mobile, ready to use a small
microcontroller based toolkit, which can be connected to a PC
and operated at home or at working place. The aim of the
toolkit is to provide practical and effective hands-on training
equipment for mechatronics study. Students can combine
various solutions on different levels of complexity and
functionality, based on modules in the kit. The electronic
boards of the modules found in the kit are presented in detail in
Fig. 3. The Robotic HomeLab kit main feature is mobility -
toolboxes are small and compact and all modules with
necessary components are seated into the box. The toolkit has a
USB connection to PC which enables to program it by using
C/C++ or Assembler programming language. Software, which
is simple and easy to install, is used to connect main controller
to computer. This is particularly important because student can
start his/her experiment in school, and then continue at home or
even in his/her workplace. The HomeLab toolkit includes all
pedagogical materials, lab exercises and source code examples.
In addition, practical questions and advanced exercises are
given at the end of every lab. Kit includes also USB stick with
live Linux operating system and pre-configured desktop where
user needs only the computer with the ability to boot from USB
stick. All work can be done without accessing in any kind of
computers operating system or any other software installed in
PC. This functionality is especially handy in public places such
as libraries, where student cannot install any custom software.
With this live system feature, student can overcome the
installation restrictions or administrator account right need.
The Robotic HomeLab, which was developed jointly by
European universities starting in 2007 and continued by private
Figure 4. The VMCU platform with an online editor
Figure 6. The Robotic HomeLab kit assembled modules
Figure 5. The VMCU with user interface module
companies as a manufacturer and commercialization, is a
microcontroller based modular kit consisting of the following
modules:
Controller module - AVR ATmega2561
microcontroller with motherboard and JTAG
programmer,
User Interface module
Sensor module (infrared and ultrasonic distance
measure, temperature and light measures, microphone),
Motor module (DC motor, servo motor, stepper motor
control and encoder input),
Communication module (ZigBee, Bluetooth and
RS232),
In addition, several guides are developed for industrial
modules like:
RFID module,
Machine vision module,
Custome sensors (Color, Force, etc.).
V. REMOTE ACCESS
A. The VMCU Platform
The whole VMCU unit in VirtualLab, described in detail [10],
is integrated into a web environment (accessible for free use at
[11]), using the ExtJS JavaScript framework [12] and
{}CodeMirror [13], as shown in Fig. 4. The login is possible
(after registration) for everyone interested, or by using the
university LDAP login. In the figure, the VMCU GUI is
shown on the left and on the right the programming area is
illustrated.
The GUI offers a comprehensive development environment
for the VMCU, including syntax highlighting, feedback about
the compilation process and demonstration exercises, which
are loaded into each new user profile. Another strength of the
system can be seen in the (almost) independence to operation
systems, as only a few hard- and software conditions needs to
be fulfilled to work with the virtual system. A close up of the
User Interface module from Robotic HomeLab kit controlled
by VMCU unit is illustrated in Fig. 5.
The controller unit itself provides buttons for controlling the
simulation and an important feedback about the real speed of
the current simulation compared to the internal clock speed.
The behavior is like the real hardware from the Robotic
HomeLab kit.
B. Distance Lab Mobile Programming
The counterpart of the VirtualLab platform is the real
hardware based platform, called DistanceLab. The DistanceLab
platform is conceptually fully compatible with the VirtualLab
and is sharing same electrical components and characteristics.
However, the DistanceLab is built up on real hardware which
is combined with ICT systems to allow remote access to
controller programming feature and visual feedback. In that
way both systems can be used simultaneously to overcome
single system specific limitations. The DistanceLab system is
fully covered in paper [14]. In this chapter the focus is on the
remote programming solution, presented in Fig. 6.
The DistanceLab platform has a two level architecture.
First layer is based on Internet connected servers, located
central web host and servers located in every lab. The main
web server provides a web based user interface for several labs
by allowing compiling the program or calculating the correct
values depending on the specific lab device characteristics or
interfaces. If user program has passed the validation e.g.
microcontroller program is successfully compiled, program
will be transferred to program server located in lab, close to
target devices. Program server connects then with target device
and identifies its state. If device is available and active,
program server resets running program in selected device and
uploads new program. When uploading is completed, system
starts with new program and user can see visual feedback over
the Internet connected cameras. Communication between
device and program server is implemented as wireless 2.4 GHz
connections. ZigBee wireless protocol is used, on server side
on API mode to detect state of target device and on client side
transparent mode to receive new program. The reason why
wireless communication is implemented is to allow controlling
not only static systems (wired systems) but also mobile
systems. A solution is developed to program wirelessly small
mobile robots running on the arena in university lab. The detail
overview of mobile robotic remote lab is given in paper [15].
The benefit of combining the virtual and real remote labs is
to give the extended possibility for students and researcher to
study or make experiments of microcontroller based systems or
experiment machinery over the distance. At first, the solution
can be evaluated with the VMCU, where device instances can
be multiplied as much as available computing power.
After completing virtual tests, which are still in simulated
world, user can move to real world platform and continue with
same solution in real world environment. The limitations of
using the DistanceLab platform are in fact that real devices
cannot be multiplied just copying them in computer. One
device can be controlled only by one user at certain time. By
combining both solutions these limitations can be compensated
by both platforms.
VI. MECHATRONICS FOR FUTURE ENGINEERS
The engineering fields are unfortunately not popular among
the young people, although the current situation in economic
sector needs the innovation especially in the technology fields.
It is critical to raise the popularity of integrated engineering
fields like mechatronics and computer sciences and this can be
done only when applying the new era Internet technology for
the study process. The Internet plays very important role
nowadays young’s life and bringing the engineering studies
into this environment we can be improve the engineering
studies significant without losing the teaching quality. The key
point in engineering studies is to make practical exercises.
The general concept and the ideas described above caught
the attention of the Innovationszentrum Schule-
Technik.Bochum.NRW (IST.NRW) [16], a project funded by
North Rhine Westphalia parliament for cooperation of
Bochum University of Applied Sciences with secondary
educational schools from the environment of the city of
Bochum.
The full concept is applied into practice in Estonia in three
different level of education. All educational levels are using
the same e-environment Network of Excellence and
hardware platform. The main difference is the amount of
guided lectures and complexity of the embedded system, the
learners working with.
With the different projects the focus is on the vocational and
secondary education sector. The approach of the DistanceLab
and the HomeLab kit has been transferred from universities to
vocational and secondary educational schools. This type of
mobile, Internet based learning environment can be shared
between different schools. Only basic infrastructure (Internet
access, computer environment) must be available at most of
the network partners sharing one DistanceLab. Therefore the
sharing of resources between different schools or even
between vocational schools and universities will be possible.
The modular Robotic HomeLab kit can also be shared and
used as a class set in schools. As DistanceLab is in general
based on the same hardware as the HomeLab kit, pupils can
train at home or in class and when they have internalized the
basic principles they can move on to the more complex
DistanceLab with additional (more expensive) hardware.
Certainly it is conceivable to adapt the technologies for the
professional skill development, as also engineers can use the
system when they have free time, for their personal
professional training. Bochum University of Applied Sciences
and Tallinn University of Technology are strongly connected
to the local industry. Therefore we will elaborate the specific
needs in industry from our partners in industry, their
expectations from the vocational education and include these
suggestions in the further development and improvement of
the HomeLab kit and the DistanceLab. In addition the
Network of Excellence will further developed, which is a wiki
based platform for collaborative working and helping each
other. Therefore also learners with special needs are addressed.
There is also work in progress to connect the concept with
scientific community through the special web environment
which enables to apply the described concept to research
collaboration in product development. First attempt are done
by integrating the early design evaluation [17] and early
design system development [18] works. Following the concept,
the new web environment offers common platform for
researchers for carrying out practical research collaboration
over the Internet.
VII. CONCLUSIONS
In summary, the new innovative study concept (Fig. 1) has
been developed for the advanced mechatronics study and the
concept will now be transferred from developer countries
(Estonia & Germany) to Finland, Lithuania and Turkey. The
learning concept is opened in detail and the practical learning
system components (i.e. HomeLab and DistanceLab) working
principles are demonstrated. The concept is already applied
into practice for different target groups. In Estonia, high
school teachers are trained to apply the concept together with
tools to local school engineering study process. The concept is
successfully integrated into mechatronics curricula at
consortium universities and is proven by the feedback from
students as they have learned much more due to the support of
the described learning concept. New component development
of learning system is in progress and new target groups and
sectors will be involved in near future.
ACKNOWLEDGMENT
This development was supported by the EU Life Long
Learning programs NetLab and VAPVoS projects. Part of the
research was supported by Estonian Science Foundation grant
No G8652.
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... Besides the mentioned work, Sell et al. [13] introduced a methodology with its technical concept that helps students to use mechatronics platforms to support coursework and hands-on experiments through the Internet independent of physical place. The developed platform was demonstrated in Estonia and Germany, and the reflections of the experience were reported by Grover et al. [14]. ...
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