University of

Background and justification of the project

In the field of Systems and Control as well as in many other engineering topics,  it is generally recognized that the process of gaining insight of the theory is significantly accelerated when students get the opportunity to apply it to real-world engineering problems. These realistic problems can be offered in assignments during instruction sessions, possibly using simulation models, but also by using real physical systems that can be operated by the students. The main added value of physical systems opposed to simulation models is that they contain the non-ideal characteristics, which are often absent in the 'ideal world' of simulation models. This gives an extra challenge to students, but also the fact that students can operate, and control real hardware has proven to be very stimulating and as such is highly appreciated by the students.

Over the past years the EE and AT bachelor curriculum at TU/e has been shaped specially to include many so-called Lab projects, all with the aim to offer to students experimental set-ups where they can apply theory from lectures to real world physical systems. The ever-increasing number of students, however, is putting a stress on this ambition. The Lab projects require lab space, setups and dedicated time in the education calendar.  All these aspects scale with the number of subscribed students. As a consequence, students end up having less time to work with the experimental setups and are asked to do more structured assignments rather than more challenged based open problems.

The project will realize an online lab environment that offers a variety of physical systems that can be accessed remotely through a web-based interface. The systems are available 24/7 and as such solves the above-mentioned problems of lab space, number of set-ups and time scheduling when dealing with large numbers of students. This remote lab will include an interactive pedagogic system that will guide the student. This interactive learning environment coaches the student and follows his progress. It will check the students' answers to experiment preparation questions and give advice to guide the student through the experiment process.

The concept of remote online labs has been subject to education research for many years. This project will result in a set-up independent platform for Remote Labs that has the potential of being used at multiple TU/e departments, being flexible and scalable, offering a variety of physical experimental set-ups to students.

The project addresses several aspects identified in chapter 4 'Research-based learning' of the TU/e STRATEGY 2030. The Remote Labs will primarily be used in the Bachelor College. The Remote Labs will contribute to the need of enabling personal learning paths through digitization where learning becomes independent from time and place. It also contributes to the TU/e ambition to facilitation of learning processes and the design of an on-line learning environment.

Objectives and expected outcomes

The Remote Lab concept is made up of multiple layers.

The top layer is the Remote Lab manager. This is a web-based client-server application that, among other things:

The Remote Lab manager will be built as a hardware independent web-based system that is flexible and scalable. This client-server software will be hosted on a TU/e web server.

The second layer is the Interactive Learning Environment. Here a student after selecting a specific set-up and a specific type of experiment, will interact with a dedicated graphical user interface (GUI). Finally, using the GUI, a request for running an experiment can be placed.

The third layer is the Experiment Manager. This system will manage and schedule all the requests for experiments for a specific experimental set-up.

The fourth layer is the Experiment Handler. This is a software layer that will run on systems connected to the real time control platform of the experimental set-up. The experiment handler will on one side have a generic interface with the experiment management layer and on the other side interface with the specific real-time control platform of a particular set-up.

The fifth layer is the real-time control platform. This includes the interface to the sensors and actuators of the physical experimental set-up and the real-time control processing unit. It might also include code generation tools that can be executed by the application handler.

The bottom layer is the physical set-up. It typically has a number of sensors and actuators which are interfaced to the real-time control platform.

Objective 1a

Develop a framework API for generating set-up and topic specific Interactive Learning Environments.

Objective 1b

Using the framework API of Objective la, develop new pedagogies, being new assignments and supervision schemes to be used in the interactive learning environment of the Remote Labs for all set-ups interfaced, and test them on student groups.

Objective 2

Using professional web software developers, build robust, generic and user-friendly Remote Lab Manager and Experiment Manager software layers that will include all the functionality, flexibility and scalability needed to offer remote access for doing experimental studies on a wide variety of physical set-ups by large numbers of students.

As explained in the paragraph about Concepts above, Experiment Handlers will interface with RT control platforms. RT Control platforms run the controller software and will have a hardware interfaces to the experimental set-ups. To enable students to run experiments the Experiment Handler has two ways to interface to the RT control platform:

  1. It activates pre-compiled code for the RT platform where this code will use a set of parameters as input to define the specific experiment. Students need then to specify these parameters.
  2. Using a defined framework, students will provide the code for the RT platform. The Experiment Handler will activate the code generation and execution.

The RT control platforms currently used are: dSPACE, ARDUINO-DUE, NI MyRio. Students will do the coding in Matlab/Simulink.

Objective 3

Develop Experiment Handlers to interface with a number of widely used RT-control platforms, using the interface options as explained above.

Objective 4

Interface the lab set-ups flexible axle drive, magnetic ball levitation, three tank system, distillation column and inverted pendulum to the Remote Labs environment.

Project design and management

The project will have a 36-month duration and is divided into the following activities (Work packages(WP) and Tasks).

WP1 Interactive Learning Environment (ILE)

Task 1.1 Literature search

Task 1.2 Functional Specifications and design of the ILE Framework Task 1.3 Implementation of the ILE Framework

Task 1.4 Design and implementation ILE for target courses (6E8X0, 5ESBO, 5ESDO) 

WP2 Management systems

Task 2.1 Functional Specifications of the Remote Labs Manager and the Experiment Manager Task 2.2 Design of system architecture

Task 2.3 Implementation of Remote Labs Manager and the Experiment Manager

 WP3 Development of Experiment Handlers

Task 3.1 Functional Specifications

Task 3.2 Design of system architecture Task 3.3 Implementation

WP4 Interfacing set-ups

Task 4.1 Interface Three-Tank System set-up for third evaluation test Task 4.2 Interface flexible axle drive set-up for first evaluation test Task 4.3 Interface ball levitator for second evaluation test
Task 4.4 Interface Inverted Pendulum for second evaluation test

WP5 Testing, evaluation and dissemination

Task 5.1 Test and evaluation on pilot group in Process Dynamics and Control course (6E8X0) Task 5.2 Test and evaluation on pilot group in Systems course (5ESBO)
Task 5.3 Test and evaluation on full group in Control Systems course (5ESDO)
Task 5.4 Final Evaluation Report, users workshop and dissemination

Dissemination and sustainability of the project

The Remote Labs concept as described above has a lot of (software) components which are set-up independently and can easily be used by other research groups at several departments. As long as the physical set-up has the necessary features to make it remotely operable (no manual actions needed), it can be hooked up in the Remote Labs environment and an interactive learning GUI can be developed.

At Mechanical Engineering, the research group Control Systems Technology (CST) has already expressed their interest in the Remote Labs environment. AT CST, Dr.ir Rene van de Molengraft (founder of the Tech United Robocup team) will be involved in the design phase of the Remote Labs software components, once the project will start.

EE-CS has strong links to AVANS Hogeschool Breda and Fontys Hogeschool Eindhoven and, also these HBOs have expressed their interest in the Remote Labs environment. Sharing set-ups which are physically at an HBO lab or at a TU/e lab by both HBO and TU/e students through the Remote Labs environment is a possibility.

First usage of the Remote Labs environment will be in the EE-CS group. This will already happen during this project where feedback from students will be used in the development of the Remote Labs. In the last phase of the project the project team will list experimental set-ups at the EE, TN and ME departments that could be candidates for Remote Labs usage. Remote Labs concepts and evaluation results will be disseminated using TU/e internal communication channels.

At the final stage of the project a workshop will be organised, where people that have shown interest in the Remote Labs environment will receive all the instructions, details and software needed so they can start porting their own set-ups towards Remote Labs usage.

Results and learnings

This project is still ongoing.

For more information, please contact:

Assistant Professor
Leyla Ozkan
Control Systems
+31 40 247 3284
Associate Professor
Mircea Lazar
Control Systems
+31 40 247 3795
Full Professor
Paul van den Hof
Control Systems
+31 40 247 3839
Associate Professor
René van de Molengraft
Control Systems Technology
University Researcher
Jobert Ludlage
Control Systems
Project Manager
Will Hendrix
Control Systems
+31 40 247 3309