This week's random hits

Check back every Friday for more random hits.


Today's focus: The world's biggest robotic telescope

January 7, 1610 — Galileo Galilei peers through a small, homemade telescope and spies three moons orbiting the planet Jupiter. The discovery throws a wrench into the prevailing belief that everything in the universe orbits the Earth.

May 28, 2008 — Astronomers in Yunnan Province, China, peer through a 40-ton, $4.5 million robotic telescope that has the power to view galaxies more than 5 billion light years away. Their discoveries, no doubt, will throw a wrench into prevailing theories of how the universe works.

Some things, thankfully, never change.

Situated 3,240 meters above sea level, the QNX-controlled Yunnan telescope is the largest optical telescope in China. Designed for multiple applications, it helps astronomers search for planets, analyze supernovae, study the age of the universe, and investigate a variety of other stellar phenomena — this is one system where the sky really is the limit.

Telescope Technologies Limited (TTL), a firm based in Birkenhead, England, designed and built the Yunnan telescope. The firm's design requirements were nothing if not ambitious. The telescope had to:

  • support a variety of scientific instruments — up to 7 at a time
  • simplify maintenance through a modular design and through off-the-shelf software and hardware components
  • support multiple modes of operation, including remote control over the Web and fully autonomous robotic operation
  • satisfy the needs of a variety of observatories, astronomical programs, and user communities
  • simplify operation to minimize the number of human operators
To control the telescope’s many functions, TTL built a distributed system that comprises 7 embedded PCs running the QNX Neutrino RTOS. A separate PC controls each motion axis (azimuth, altitude, rotator) of the telescope; the remaining PCs handle mirror-cell pneumatics, data logging, security, and other auxiliary functions.

Ease of use was critical to the system design, which provides a number of graphical displays for monitoring and control. Take, for example, the autoguider GUI (below), which allows the operator to manually control the autoguider camera for calibration, acquisition, and other purposes.

The autoguider GUI

For a closer look at this telescope’s many capabilities, check out check out TTL’s product specification.


The don’t make ‘em like they used to (thank goodness)

Back in the early 1950s, Gibson introduced a cheap, entry-level electric guitar called the Les Paul Junior. A study in simplicity, it had one pickup, two knobs, and not much else.

Rock guitarists loved it. The single P-90 pickup, when hooked up to a high-gain amp, added raw grit to the sound of rock and blues anthems. If you’re old enough to remember the roaring, over-amped guitar in “Mississippi Queen,” that was the Les Paul Junior.

Fast forward 54 years. Vintage LP Juniors — which originally sold for 50 bucks — now go for $6000 or more on Ebay. Why? Well, according to some people, no one, not even the wizards at Gibson, could reproduce the unique sound of the original models.

But has the rock world suffered? Hardly. There are now hundreds of electric (and electronic) guitar models out there, many of them capable of sound-bending tricks that 50s-era guitar designers could never have imagined. The original LP Junior is a thing of beauty (can you tell I’d really like one?), but modern guitar players need something more, well, modern.

The software world isn’t any different. At one time, most vendors had closed source code and closed development processes — a model that served customers perfectly well. But the market has moved on, embedded products have become more complex, and embedded software vendors need to keep pace. To do that, they can, among other things, open up their source code and allow customers to become active participants in the product development process.

Basically, vendors have a choice. They can continue to play solo, or they can work in concert with their customers and developer community to create a thing of beauty. Personally, I like door number 2.


Using robots to address a serious kneed

No doubt about it, people in developed countries are getting older and older. Case in point: The number of knee replacements in the U.S. grew from 257,000 in 1998 to 455,000 in 2004. Since doctors rarely perform knee replacements on patients under 50, those numbers can reflect only one thing: an aging and progressively nonambulatory population.

Hip-replacement surgeries follow a similar trend. For evidence, consider the following chart, which aggregates knee and hip replacement surgeries performed in Ontario, Canada from 1992 to 2002. (If you're wondering, the dips reflect seasonal fluctuations. Not surprisingly, doctors perform fewer surgeries during their summer vacations and Christmas holidays.)

Source: BMC Health Services

These trends haven't escaped the notice of researchers at Waseda University, the Japanese equivalent of MIT. By creating QNX-based robots that walk like humans, the researchers hope to gain insights that will help older people walk longer. The bipedal robots act as human motion simulators, allowing researchers to generate quantitive data that can't easily (or safely) be measured with human subjects. Ultimately, the researchers believe this data will aid in the development of new healthcare technologies and therapies.

As someone whose knees have been wonky since 1987, I’m looking forward to their results. :-)

For technical details on the QNX-based WABIAN-2R robot used in this research, click here.


Ottawa in bloom

In March, I posted photos of what Ottawa looked like after a major blizzard. It's now early May and the flowers are blooming like mad, so it's time to show you what Ottawa looks like sans snow.

Let's start by walking out QNX's front door. As you can see, some of the tulips in the front garden are in full bloom:

A closer look:

When you walk across the street from QNX, you quickly reach a section of the Trans Canada trail, which, when completed, will stretch 18,000 kilometers. Just off the trail, I came across several bushes in full flower:

Here's another photo of these bushes, which I took back in 2006.

Huge numbers of migratory birds have returned to Ottawa in the last month, including robins, kingbirds, ducks, herons, red-winged blackbirds, and, one of my favorites, waxwings. Here's a waxwing that flew close to QNX headquarters, back in April:

After viewing this post, someone asked about the geese that "overrun" Ottawa in Spring time. Overrun might be too strong a word (unless you just put your foot in Goose guano, in which case the sentiment is understandable), but, in any case, here's a shot of some Canada geese flying overhead. I took this in April, a few kilometres from QNX:

If you'd like to share some of your Spring photos, just leave a comment and provide a link — I'd be delighted to see them.


The iPod of film cameras

Recently, companies like Intel and Harman have been using QNX technology to demonstrate the slick graphics capabilities of their new products. Take, for example, this 3D navigation system, which runs on the Intel Atom and which uses QNX’s implementation of the OpenGL ES 3D API:

All of these graphics demos got me thinking, naturally enough, about user-interface design. And that got me thinking, surprisingly enough, about the Olympus Infinity Stylus Epic.

Have you ever used an Epic? It’s a low-priced, well-built, waterproof 35mm camera with a talent for rocket photography. And here's the best part: It’s much smaller than its name.

From a usability perspective, the Epic embodied the “less is more” philosophy years before the iPod Classic made its debut on a drawing board. Like the iPod Classic, it has a simple user interface (you just push the damn button) and it can fit into your smallest pocket — or rocket. And like the iPod, it performs its job extremely well.

For evidence, consider the photo below, shot with my trusty Epic. If the plane looks unfamiliar, it’s an Avro Arrow, a 1950s-era Canadian interceptor capable of Mach 2. If you’re familiar with the Arrow, you’ll have already guessed that the plane in the photo isn’t real, but a large-scale model — the last real Arrow was scrapped in 1959. (BTW, the young fellow adding drama to the shot is my son.)

Replica of Avro Arrow, Barry’s Bay, Ontario.
Supporting pedestal removed in PhotoShop.

To return to my point, combining the right amount of functionality with an intuitive user interface is nirvana for device developers. Apple found the sweet spot, and so did Olympus. Achieving this combination is tough, though. It takes daring and a solid feel for what your customers will buy, along with right HMI technology.

What about you? Do you have a favorite device that strikes a perfect balance of functionality, usability, and affordability? Have you built one?


Olympus sold a huge number of Epics over the years. But recently, it stopped manufacturing the camera, likely because it shoots film. C'est la vie.


An audience of millions

Pin a world map to your wall, put on a blindfold, and throw a dart at the map. Grab a shortwave radio and take a plane to wherever the dart landed. Switch on the radio and start twiddling with the tuner. Chances are, you’ll pick up China Radio International (CRI).

CRI, a state-owned radio network of the People’s Republic of China, embodies the "think big" approach. Every day, its 50+ shortwave transmitters pump out 290 hours of programming worldwide — in 42 languages, no less. Those transmitters target just about every corner of the globe, from Tirana, Albania to Houston, Texas.

Broadcasting all that content takes some serious back-end equipment. This week, NTP Technology A/S, a Danish manufacturer of high-end broadcast products, announced that CRI is expanding its broadcast center with NTP 625 audio routers, controlled by the QNX Neutrino RTOS. Not surprisingly, these routers are equipped for 24/7 operation, with full monitoring capabilities, hot-swapping for all modules, and redundant power supplies.

A view inside the CRI broadcast center. An NTP 625 audio router is in Bay 1, at the upper left.

I did some digging, and it turns out that QNX-based systems control hundreds of other radio and TV stations in the United States, Germany, India, Italy, Mexico, Russia, the UK, and other countries in Europe and Asia. Vendors offering QNX-based broadcast automation systems include Aveco, Harris , IBIS Transmission Automation, Thomson Grass Valley, and, of course, NTP Technology.

I now realize that hundreds of millions of people worldwide watch TV broadcasts controlled by QNX. On the one hand, that’s pretty cool. On the other hand, shouldn’t those millions of people get off their bums, walk out the door, and, well, do something?