NIWeek presenters address the past and future of innovation

Austin, TX. The Thursday keynote session at NIWeek surveyed the history of innovation and honored student innovators. In addition, Joe Salvo of GE, Mark Hatch of TechShop, and Gerhard Fettweis of TU Dresden offered their views on the future of innovation.

Eric Starkloff, NI's executive vice president of global sales and marketing, kicked off the session by citing the abacus, steam engine, light bulb, and transistor. Now, he said, the pace of innovation is increasing at an exponential rate, and engineers attending NIWeek are not just witnessing but creating this innovation.

He cited the National Academy of Engineering's Grand Challenges, which address healthcare, sustainability, security, and the joy of living. And meeting challenges, he said, begins with academics.

Dave Wilson, director of academic programs at NI, then took the stage to discuss how to prepare students to have an exponential impact on the world. He cited an early ICE automobile—a relatively simple vehicle that would get you from point A to point B most of the time while burning fuel and belching carbon. Today, a car like the Tesla S has zero emissions while incorporating hundreds of sensors and ECUs—not to mention many lines of code. Such complexity, he said, signifies the starting point for today's students. (As an aside, he suggested that some things haven't changed much. We used to write equations on a blackboard using white chalk; now we write them on a whiteboard using a black dry erase marker.)

To progress from that complex starting point, he said, young students can begin learning with tools like LEGO Mindstorms—acquiring techniques that can scale throughout their learning years. The key to learning is to have students “do engineering.”

Of course, it's not possible to put, for example, an offshore windmill into students' hands to let them do engineering. However, said Brooke Turner, academic courseware project manager at NI, it is possible to put “mini systems” in students' hands to let them do engineering anytime, anywhere. She demonstrated several tabletop projects based on NI's myDAQ and myRIO platforms—including a helicopter, shake table, and dynamometer. Wilson commented that NI and its partners in education have put educational technology in the hands of 4 million future system designers.

The program then turned to NI's Student Design Competition, involving 3,250 teams from 25 countries. Three team finalists were on hand to be honored at NIWeek. Students from UNC Charlotte completed the “NASA Student Launch Project,” and a team from KAIST in the Republic of Korea completed the EureCar self-driving car. But the overall winner was a team from ETH Zurich. Students Julian Felix Flury, Alessandro Schäppi, and Antoine Seewer presented their Sepios underwater exploration vehicle, which, instead of the propellers of a typical submarine, maneuvers using 36 lifelike rays actuated by individual servos to minimize ecosystem invasiveness. The system incorporates laser distance measurement, a swim bladder, a pressure sensor, an inertial measurement unit (including an accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer), and a live streaming camera.

The program then turned to the work of an MIT team, consisting of professor Dr. Kamal Youcef-Toumi, MIT graduate Dr. Darya Amin-Shahidi, and professor Dr. David L. Trumper. They designed the world's largest range video-speed atomic-force microscope, which incorporates LabVIEW FPGA technology. And they have designed a portable macro-scale AFM-like system called “FlexLab for myRIO” that students can build for about $50.

Mark Hatch, CEO and founder of TechShop, then took the stage to describe his firm's contribution to the maker community—offering on a membership basis access to a variety of resources, from CNC machine tools to NI VirtualBench. But what's most important, he said, is the creation of a community, bringing together artists, tinkerers, and entrepreneurs. Today, he said, that community has access to the cheapest, most powerful, and easiest to use tools in all of history. A goal of TechShop, he said, is to divert disposable income to creative pursuits. He cited several successes of TechShop members, ranging from the DODOCASE to an incubator blanket that could save the lives of 100,000 premature babies in developing countries.

Dr. Joe Salvo of GE Global Research and the founder and director of the Industrial Internet Consortium then took the stage to comment on the Industrial Internet in the “systems age,” which has superseded the information age. Data is no longer enough to win, he said. You need systems to allow you to make decisions in real time. He cited several trends, including software disruption, data analytics, global distribution, digitization, low-cost manufacturing, and open markets. He recalled buying a 10-MB hard disk drive in the 1980s for about $1,000. At that dollar-to-megabyte ratio, he said, he is now in 2014 carrying about $200 million worth of memory in his pocket.

The physical world is evolving at the speed of software, Salvo concluded, as the Industrial Internet pushes the boundaries of minds and machines.

The final speaker of the session was Dr. Gerhard Fettweis, a professor at the Technische Universität Dresden. He began by emphasizing the rapid evolution of the cellphone, presenting two side-by-side images of St. Peter's Square—the first at the time of the election of Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 and the second of Pope Francis in 2013. The second image suggests thousands of people streaming real-time high-definition video using and smart devices. Data rates are exploding, he said, increasing tenfold every five years. We need a terabit Wi-Fi solution, he said.

He added that we don't only need faster data—we need a “tactile Internet” that reacts over long distances as fast as our senses do. A 25-ms delay in virtual-reality (VR) glasses, he said, causes queasiness. Latency must be held to less than 1 ms, he said—a fact that the gaming industry has recognized.

He cited additional technologies, including free-viewpoint video and remote-controlled humanoid robots. There is a revolution ahead in communications, he said. 4G is about content delivery, whereas 5G will be about controlling objects in our environment.

In a Q&A session at the end of the keynote presentation, Salvo of GE added a cautionary note about big data. He asked, “Have you kept every newspaper you've ever read? Of course not. We need to learn what to forget.”

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