Control system experiment setup with Quanser Q2-USB data acquisition device

Why use real-time control software for education?

by Simon Whitmell

Engineering Curriculum Specialist | Quanser

You may be familiar with QUARC, Quanser’s rapid control prototyping software. As our recent post mentions, Quanser has been working for 30 years to bring the best in both hard and soft real-time control to your fingertips. Obviously, this is most exciting for those who want to develop and test new cutting-edge control algorithms, or design and deploy their control systems across heterogeneous platforms. However, there is an oft-overlooked educational application for QUARC. Let’s take a look at what makes QUARC great for teaching, and one of the most versatile tools in any controls lab.

Simulink integration

QUARC Simulink integrationMatlab/Simulink is the natural environment for the development of control systems. It is widely used in both research and industrial control design. Simulink it one of the most intuitive programming environments for getting practical experience in controls due to both the visual programming style, and the extensive control design toolkits. However, Simulink is used predominantly for simulation and analysis. That means it can be a challenge to integrate real-time processing and external hardware. QUARC and Simulink combine to create a seamless student experience in constructing control block diagrams, and applying those control designs to hardware.

Academic abstraction

At Quanser, we use the phrase “academically appropriate abstraction” to describe the balance between an open control architecture in Simulink and the abstracted low-level architecture of QUARC. We think students should be able to dissect a controller down to the basic input/output level. However, the details of how that I/O works, or even what hardware the I/O is part of can often be unnecessary complications. We want students to understand what is happening under the hood, without requiring them to know how to build a car.

USB/3rd-party device support

Control system experiment setup with Quanser Q2-USB data acquisition deviceMany dedicated control computing platforms require specialized data busses because they are geared towards research-grade controls implementation. That makes them prohibitively expensive for education applications. QUARC allows using any consumer PC with USB data acquisition tools to control a wide variety of hardware in soft real-time. So setting up even large controls labs require only modest funding. Furthermore, QUARC gives you tools for interfacing your control design with a huge range of commercial products ranging from USB joysticks to industrial manipulator arms.

Code portability

One of the most annoying tasks in control design is taking a controller which works on one platform, and trying to make it work on another one. Often, students who want to work with an embedded platform get derailed by a lack of knowledge about operating systems or compilers. QUARC makes it seamless to prototype a controller in the convenience of a Windows environment with simple hardware. Then in a matter of minutes, you can have that same controller running on a remote Linux target such as a Raspberry Pi. So students can get an intuitive understanding of the universality of controls concepts by applying them on multiple hardware and processing platforms, and comparing the results with ease.

Research readiness

Because the user experience with QUARC and Simulink is exactly the same for education and research, your students will leave the lab with practical knowledge that will prepare them to move on to controls research. Furthermore, the same undergraduate lab hardware can be equally valuable in Masters and Doctorate-level research. That makes for more flexible funding applications, better hardware utilization, and ultimately, better research. We know that research is of critical importance to academic institutions, and we want to help minimize the competition for resources between your research and education goals.

Is QUARC right for you?

If you are a controls lecturer, researcher, or both and you haven’t seen QUARC real-time control software in action, you don’t know what you’re missing. No other tool will give you the ability to put research-quality hardware and software in the hands of your students with such ease. We know that balancing the demands of research and education can be nearly impossible, so we say: why choose between them? Choose the right tools, and you can be a hero in the lab and the lecture hall.

And before you request your free QUARC trial version, see why Dr. Wang from the University of Waterloo believes with QUARC, his students can achieve much more: