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Software-defined test reaches "Tipping Point"

At the 3rd annual National Instruments Military & Aerospace Solutions Conference, held on Tuesday May 22nd 2007 at the Systems Engineering Innovation Centre at Loughborough University, keynote speakers Ian Bell and Darcy Dement introduced conference delegates from across the military and aerospace industry in the UK & Ireland to the "Tipping Point".

This concept was first introduced by Malcolm Gladwell in his book of the same name published in 2000. To quote the author: "The name given to that one dramatic moment in an epidemic when everything can change all at once is the Tipping Point".

Software is fast becoming the dominant technology in military and aerospace applications. Software-defined systems such as radio and flight controls are enabling design engineers to create flexible, upgradeable devices with shorter design cycles and lower cost than is possible with traditional hardware alone. Test and measurement systems for design and manufacturing need to match or exceed the flexibility and performance of the software-defined devices that are being tested. This has lead the US Department of Defence (DoD) to mandate the adoption of software-defined synthetic instruments in future test systems. Software-defined systems or virtual instrumentation bring together productive graphical software development tools, modular measurement devices and high speed buses, such as PCI and PXI (PCI eXtensions for Instrumentation), which empowers engineers to create user-defined results from raw measurement data. Now that major test industry companies like Agilent and Keithley have joined the PXI Systems Alliance, Bell and Dement explained, the landscape of test for military and aerospace applications has reached the point of a rapid change to a software-defined approach.

Looking to the future, Bell and Dement explained how the same concept of high-level software tools, coupled to high speed buses and off-the-shelf modular hardware was changing how systems and devices themselves are designed. This technique, called Graphical System Design, is driving the adoption of FPGA-based, reconfigurable I/O in test systems and beginning to reach into embedded system design processes. This blurring of the distinction between design and test offers a future where a common software and hardware platform is used throughout the design, prototyping and deployment of devices and systems for military and aerospace applications.

Building on the keynote, the conference then explored the architecture of next-generation software-defined test systems and the application of Graphical System Design through a series of technical presentations given by NI, NI partners and leading practitioners from BAE Systems, Ultra Electronics, SCITEK, TBG Solutions, JTAG Technologies and Peak Production. For example, James Peter of TBG Solutions and John Duncalf of BAE Systems presented a case study entitled "Automatic Front Fuselage Testing: Large-Scale System integration Utilising GOOP Programming Techniques". This technical content was supported by hands-on training in software tools such as NI LabVIEW, NI LabWindows/CVI and NI TestStand.

The conference also proved to be a valuable forum for networking amongst suppliers, test engineers and designers, with an exhibition featuring NI and 15 partners, including Tektronix, TRW Conekt and Dowding & Mills. Delegates were presented with a guide containing 32 case studies describing the application of these technologies and, in the spirit of the event, balsa wood aeroplanes!


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