Reconfigurable Virtual Instrumentation Based on FPGA for Science and High-Education

Reconfigurable Virtual Instrumentation Based on FPGA for Science and High-Education

Maria Liz Crespo (International Centre for Theoretical Physics, Italy), Andres Cicuttin (International Centre for Theoretical Physics, Italy), Julio Daniel Dondo Gazzano (University of Castilla-La Mancha, Spain) and Fernando Rincon Calle (University of Castilla-La Mancha, Spain)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-0299-9.ch005
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In this chapter we will show how modern FPGA offers the possibility of implementing Reconfigurable Virtual Instrumentation, a new kind of electronic instrumentation which generates interesting opportunities for regular users but that also poses several technical challenges for advanced users and instrument developers. We will analyze some of the main problems and we will give some ideas and possible strategies to deal with them. In order to put the subject in the right context we will review some general concepts regarding instrumentation in general and we later proceed with some more specific concepts and definitions. The chapter also describes two hardware/software platforms for science and high-education developed at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics (ICTP) where the concept of RVI proposed in this chapter was applied. Although we mainly adopt a scientist's prospective to define and analyze instrumentation, most of the conclusions drawn along this chapter can be easily generalized for a wide range of applications in commercial or industrial sectors.
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1. Instrumentation And The Relevance Of Electronics

In scientific context, instrumentation generally means any equipment, apparatus or device useful for the experimental scientific research to measure, observe, or monitor a phenomenon under study or experimentation. Some instruments enhance perceptual and observational capacities of human beings such as telescopes, microscopes, and stethoscopes. Other instruments can be used to determine and control certain phenomena by mean of the action of physical agents such as heat, electric currents or electromagnetic fields. Examples of these instruments could be climatic chambers, chemical reactors, particle accelerators, wave generators, etc. But perhaps what most comes to mind when talking about scientific instruments is measurement. Measurement is one of the fundamental activities in scientific experimentation. The measurement can reveal new aspects not readily visible but it also allows comparison and reproducibility of experiments ensuring the objectivity of the conclusions and consequently its scientific value. With this consideration we can say that the quality of a scientific measuring instrument is mainly determined by the accuracy and precision, that is respectively by its absolute and relative errors. Obviously many other factors contribute to determine the value of an instrument: ability to generate a certain amount of data in the unit time, adaptability to various experimental conditions, reliability, durability, weight, dimensions, easiness of use, compatibility with other instruments, cost and maintenance easiness, electric power consumption, use of disposable materials (gases, filters, pipettes, water, catalysts), etc.

In short, a measuring instrument provides information: the numerical value of the measurement of a physical parameter. Thus the instrument must receive stimulation from the physical magnitude to be quantified (temperature, pressure, electric field, etc.) and measure its intensity, and finally present the obtained information in a useful and understandable form to the operator.

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