Hardware and software ‘easy-to-use’

Hardware and software ‘easy-to-use’

There are many research and innovation projects whose objective is the design and development of an electronic device, whose purpose is to satisfy main requirements of the market. In general, we look for devices with the necessary capacity to acquire information about the physical world that surrounds us and, in many cases, interact with it.

To carry out the validation of the idea, it is necessary to carry out a previous prototype that allows a first approximation of the final solution. Generally, the most complex and interesting part is the electronic design of the device. In this part, the design and development of the electronic board is carried out, defining consumption and communication requirements, selecting microcontrollers, PCB board, components, connectors, etc.

This task means to have expensive electronic design software licenses, to integrate expert electronic staff into the work team and to allocate a significant part of the project hours to its execution.

Times change, more and more hardware development platforms are involved in making these changes possible. These platforms offer the user a board that integrates the microcontroller with the circuits and basic components of communication, power, etc. Among them stand out: Parallax, STMicroelectonics, LaunchPad, Microchip ChipKIT, mbed (version of ARM to give solutions to “internet of things”).

But, if I had to choose one of these platforms at this time, I would do it for Arduino. I think he has cleverly combined the hardware and software, generating a flexible prototyping platform, open source and easy to use, whose features are:

  • A hardware based on powerful boards that integrate simple microcontrollers. Its main characteristics are low cost, small size and low consumption. It is published under a Creative Commons license, a wide variety of auxiliary equipment developed by other manufacturers that support this platform is available on the market.
  • Open source software, based on a simple and clear development environment. That allows expert programmers to generate complex solutions. In part, this must availability of a multitude of standardized libraries contributed by a large community on the internet.

These characteristics facilitate and guarantee the integration of the new trends and evolutions that are continuously generated in the field of electronics, thus improving their features and capabilities.

Although a priori it may be thought that this platform is designed to start experimenting with electronics, its features make it a flexible and powerful tool for expert users, facilitating the development of advanced prototypes.

Therefore, these tools allow to reduce costs and design times of any technological proposal, facilitating the creation of prototypes and reducing the errors generated in its development phase. This allows the researcher to forget about the implementation at a low level and focus on the design features.

This technology has great potential for integration in several of the technological research and innovation lines with which the European Union is currently working, such as, the Internet of Things and in Factories of the future, of H2020.

In CARTIF we are aware of its importance and we have started to use these platforms as support in the development of our research work. A sample of this is the European project “SANDS, where the Internet of Things, Social Networks and Intelligent Systems converge, and the Spanish project “REPARA 2.0, in which new autonomous and wireless sensors are searched to be embedded in the asphalt layer of our roads.

Artificial vision in hot stamping

Artificial vision in hot stamping

With this post, I would like to try to show a very clear example where, the intelligent use of a suitable artificial vision system can solve a major problem in a production line at a reasonable price.

The body of our vehicle consists of a multitude of metallic pieces, each with its own requirement. The automotive industry manufactures these parts through a laminating sheet forming process called stamping. In this process a metal sheet is placed on a matrix, it is fixed and later, a punch pushes the sheet towards the matrix generating the desired cavity.

Depending on the temperature of the steel blanks two types of stamping are defined: cold stamping and hot stamping. In this case, we will focus on the hot stamping, which is applied mainly in elements of high structural requirement, such as reinforcements, pillars, etc.

Image captured by the vision system at the exit of the oven

In this process the steel blanks is heated above the austenization temperature, obtaining a high ductility and then proceeding to a rapid cooling to achieve the martensitic hardening of the sheet. The pieces obtained reach high resistance, complex shapes are obtained and the effects of springback are reduced. This allows, among other things, to improve the passive safety of our cars and reduce their weight.

In this manufacturing process, the steel blanks leave the furnace at high speed, at a temperature around 900-950 ºC, they stop abruptly in a fixed position and, later, a robot collects them to introduce them in the press as quickly as possible , In order to avoid its cooling before the press stroke.

The problem arises from the difficulty of ensuring a fixed position with mechanical fasteners. This is due, among other things, to the speed of the line, the great variety of references, the high temperatures of the steel blanks (which cools very quickly at the point where there is a contact) and the internal characteristics of the furnace (which can measure up to 30m).

An incorrect position means that the robot fails to pick up the steel blanks, or worse, to pick it up incorrectly and place it incorrectly in the press, producing a wrong press stroke and stopping the line, together with a deterioration of the tools.

In this case, the artificial vision is presented as the best choice to indicate to the robot if the actual position of the steel blanks is correct. The most important task of the vision system will be to correctly segment the steel blanks into the image in order to accurately determine the position of the steel blanks.

CARTIF position. Application developed by CARTIF

A priori, given the intense infrared radiation emitted by the plates due to their high temperature, it seems that the easiest alternative to achieve this task is to use industrial infrared cameras. This solution presents two problems: the high cost of these equipments and the low resolution of the infrared sensors.

The working area in which the steel blanks are positioned is very wide, due to the size of the parts and because in many cases it is worked in batches, handling up to four units simultaneously. Given the low resolution of these sensors, it is necessary to use several cameras to increase the precision with which the position is defined.

From CARTIF we have been developing more economical solutions, using industrial cameras within the visible electromagnetic spectrum with a greater sensitivity in the infrared range. The resolution of these cameras is much higher than that of the infrared cameras which allows to increase the accuracy of the measurements.

This has allowed companies such as Renault to obtain a robust and configurable system that avoids undesirable stops of the line and extends the useful life of its tools, which leads to a considerable improvement in the production line.

Roads that broke the ice

Roads that broke the ice

With this post I would like to take up the theme of under road heating, in order to delve a bit more into the benefit that can have heating the most critical points of the road.

As I already indicated, the current solution to avoid and eliminate icing on the roads is the application of chemical deicers, which we all know as “road salt”. To a greater or lesser extent, this substance is sodium chloride, an inexpensive and effective product. I would like to stop here for a little reflection, are we really aware of the damage we are doing using these substances? Surely not, that’s why people rejoice when they see the salt spread.

Millions of tons are scattered annually on our roads, often without proper distribution to the road and with excessive frequency. For this reason, I would like to highlight some of its harmful consequences:

  • The vegetation near the road is the first to suffer the negative effects of salt, on the one hand, the high concentrations of chloride make it a toxic element, causing the gilding or burning of the leaves, and on the other hand, the High concentrations of sodium can affect plant growth by altering soil structure, permeability and aeration
  • A significant proportion of the salt is washed away by rainwater reaching aquifers, reservoirs, rivers, wetlands, etc., causing a dramatic increase in the risk of contamination of delicate ecosystems and even in many cases of the water we drink.
  • Salt greatly affects the health of wildlife from two points of view: due to the serious consequences of its consumption due to its toxicity, especially to birds, and the frequency of run over, since salt attracts the animals for their ingestion.
  • Another point that we hardly consider is the soil, although its degradation is a serious problem for Europe. Salt reduces the stability of the soil, modifies its electrical conductivity, decreases its pH and in general, seriously impairs its fertility.

As we can see, the environmental impact of chemical deicers is very intense, therefore, we should try to make an effort to minimize their effect, using all the technology that is within our reach to achieve a less aggressive winter maintenance

A partial solution would be to be able to measure in real time the amount of chemical deicers at each point of the road, not just at a fixed point. This would only be achieved by loading the sensors into the intervention and maintenance vehicles. Currently, there are some systems under development that measure wheel splatter, measuring the water refraction index (Japan Highway Public Corporation) or electrical conductivity (University of Cone). Given their results, they have never been incorporated into the market.

From CARTIF, with the collaboration of the Spanish company Collosa, we are investigating in the development of this product. The objectives are to avoid spreading more road salt when the current quantities are sufficient, to throw only the necessary quantity in the precise place that needs it (given the system of global positioning of these devices) and to give an objective tool to the responsible of the winter maintenance, so that he can make the right decision.

In CARTIF we are committed to a final solution that avoids dispersing chemical deicers as far as possible. If we manage to attack the problem in the most dangerous points, preventing and avoiding the formation of ice, we will avoid the exit of the truck to cover those points with chemical deicers. In addition, this outlet will not only cover the dangerous points, but will spread the chemical deicers all over the road.

This solution is the development of a more economical radiant floor with more energy efficiency, based on geothermal energy. For this, the development of an intelligent prediction that prevents the formation of ice and is based on the use of new bituminous mixtures is fundamental.

Undoubtedly, this will mean a significant reduction in the environmental impact of winter maintenance on our roads and in particular in the most sensitive areas of our geography such as natural parks.

Under road heating

Under road heating

We all know the great efforts made by the authorities in reducing road accidents,  however, there are uncontrollable factors. This is the case of adverse weather conditions, including icing on the road surface.

To address this problem, each community uses its own winter maintenance works, defining the riskiest areas and periods of the year, and coordinating the means to combat the ice with tons of chemical deicers (salt, brine, etc.). The main consequence of this process is the significant environmental impact.

What would happen if we proposed roads heating with underfloor heating? The Answer is unanimous: “It is not feasible, the cost is very high .. !! “. But if we say, ” It could save lives on the road and reduce the use of chemical deicers,” things change. Therefore, the challenge ahead is to define  specific heating solutions in the most dangerous areas of roads, where the possibility of saving lives is higher, and in fragile ecosystem areas where the use of chemical deicers are more harmful.

Heating the road with underfloor heating is not a new solution, if we surf the Internet and examine the issue in depth, we will see that similar solutions already exist in large bridges and airports. The high cost is not an impediment to its implementation. In general, these solutions are very expensive, both in its development phase and operational phase. Its goal is to melt the ice  using large amounts of energy.

Therefore, the challenge ahead is to get an affordable and energy efficient system. This can only be achieved if the problem is approached from different ways (or points of view).

To begin with, the key point is to prevent ice formation, thus drastically reducing the amount of energy required to melt. But how is their formation avoided? A rational solution could be developing intelligent predictive algorithms that warn of icing risk in the short time. These techniques must be based on a good monitoring system. This system will know the weather conditions on the road and temperature conditions inside the asphalt, generally by sensors embedded in the asphalt mix. This monitoring must focus on the real parameters that influence the formation of ice on the road surface.

Another important point to study in depth is the asphalt mixes used in – road building, focusing on both, the binder and the  mixture.

Binders that minimize the impact of low temperatures in the performance of the mixtures, ensuring good behavior and suitable fluxing properties are sought. For this purpose polymer modified bitumen and rubber improved bitumens are used. Mix parameters as the gaps will be another factor to consider in the design of these facilities

The next factor to choose is the energy source to heat the system fluid. The energy requirements to prevent icing are less than those required to melt. This makes geothermal energy  a strong candidate.

Finally, it is necessary to define the characteristics and distribution of the tubes, the sizing of the installation, the thicknesses of the mixtures and many other factors to be included in the drafting stage of the construction project of a road. All under the tight restrictions imposed by the constructive factors and requirements of driving comfort.

In CARTIF we work in these research areas in order to achieve this goal in collaboration with Eiffage, Euroestudios, Cepsa and the University of Oviedo. So far the results are very encouraging.