What you’ll learn:
- Benefits of fully software-defined instrumentation.
- How FPGAs, expanded cloud services, and intuitive user-experience design are moving the test and measurement industry forward.
- Examples of recent applications and implementations in software-defined instrumentation.
Software-defined instrumentation—a more versatile alternative to traditional, fixed-function lab and engineering equipment—has existed for more than a decade. But recent advances in underlying capabilities have propelled the technology from a hobbyist niche into high-end tools gaining wide adoption among mainstream test and measurement applications. Software is enabling exciting new ways for scientists and engineers to enhance research and accelerate technology development.
Significant performance improvements in field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), expanded cloud services, and intuitive user-experience design have launched next-generation devices with a broad range of distinct advantages over traditional standalone hardware. Thanks to powerful software enhancements, these new devices are easier to use, remotely accessible, and instantly upgraded when new features are released. They also provide valuable hardware-accelerated processing and enable greater flexibility than ever before.
Why Software-Defined Instruments?
The appeal of software-defined instruments is founded in pairing the flexible configuration and control enabled by easy-to-use software with the high-performance execution delivered by robust hardware. These innovative tools provide a range of advantages over traditional equipment, as well as massive potential to support new applications across the commercial, research, and education sectors.
While software-defined instruments provide a range of benefits, here are the five most important ways they can help users:
1. They integrate many instruments into one reconfigurable and customizable hardware device.
With software-defined instrumentation, users can reconfigure hardware on the fly to perform different functions, such as an oscilloscope, a network analyzer, or a real-time control loop. This means that a single device replaces multiple instruments—often at a fraction of the cost.
Initially, different instruments had to be switched in and out one at a time. Thanks to the rapid advances in FPGAs, different instruments can now be run simultaneously, allowing for an entire system of conventional equipment to be replaced by one software-defined device.
2. They offer the ultimate in flexibility.
The reconfigurability of the hardware enables users to customize their instruments. Users can define custom protocols, add custom pre-compensation to a waveform generator, or pre-process data before viewing and recording with an oscilloscope. Software-defined instrumentation also helps users quickly build entirely new instruments or capabilities, tasks that were previously the domain of development boards and not for the faint of heart.
In the next five years, expect to see significant advances that will make instrument customization even more accessible using high-level, industry-standard tools like MathWorks’ Simulink and MATLAB.
3. They’re easier to maintain and increase asset longevity.
With most of their functionality enabled by software, these new devices can be remotely upgraded through over-the-air software updates that add new instruments and significant new capabilities. This eliminates the need to frequently replace expensive, outdated equipment, because instant upgrades enable the technology to keep up with the latest standards and evolving requirements. The result is simplified logistics, fewer end-of-life headaches, and better reuse of hardware.
4. They’re easier to use, despite offering more sophisticated features.
Software-defined instrumentation leads the pack when it comes to best practices for user-interface (UI) design. This means tighter integration with Python, cloud storage, data-analysis tools, and more. Ease of use is more important than you might think.
What’s the most expensive part of most test systems? The engineers who run them. Thanks to the intuitive UI, engineers can get up and running without opening a manual and with significantly less training. Better UI helps ensure a more efficient workflow, improved productivity, and shorter time-to-impact.
5. They make business sense for many organizations.
Rather than the large, up-front purchases familiar to many hardware buyers, software is easily and widely accessible on a subscription basis. Subscription can be a win-win for users and vendors alike. For users, new capabilities can be turned on (and off) as a project’s funding wedge grows or declines, optimizing costs. For vendors, subscriptions motivate sustained investment to enhance instrument features, and they can help ensure software upgrades and customer support are continuously improved.
A World of Untapped Potential
The increased capabilities of software-defined instrumentation represent the next major paradigm shift in the test and measurement space. These enhancements will allow for new applications and implementations across many scientific fields, from astrophysics to cancer research. A couple of recent notable examples include:
- Researchers at the University of Alberta are developing ultra-sensitive devices that can improve dark-matter detector technologies, a project that requires high-precision measurements and remote monitoring. Detectors are deployed more than a mile underground, where the faintest signals can be detected with limited interference, making remote, online monitoring essential for operation. The small form factor and flexibility of software-defined instrumentation enables researchers to perform complex experiments in various environments far away from traditional lab settings.
- At the University of Washington, researchers are using chemical imaging tools to help detect cancer earlier and increase understanding of neurodegenerative disease progression. They use two-color stimulated Raman scattering, a process where two instruments conduct simultaneous scans. Equipped with newly developed, software-defined tools, the researchers can perform a variety of experiments and extract the low-intensity SRS signals with one compact, multichannel device.
The Future of Test and Measurement
Most conventional test and measurement equipment today still looks remarkably like products available 30 years ago, apart from color screens. But with the emergence of software-defined instrumentation, the industry is experiencing a profound digital transformation.
Scientists and engineers now have better, more flexible ways to design with maximum efficiency—a critical need as the world heads into uncertain economic times. While the rising costs of raw materials are driving down profitability across industries, advances in software technology will meet this concern head-on. For engineers, being able to preview designs and extrapolate data with unprecedented accuracy before building considerably reduces overall costs and ensures that efforts are optimized.
As the world becomes increasingly connected by technology, the test and measurement industry must innovate to meet the demands of industry consumers who want tools that are easy to use and adaptable to rapid change. This is where software-defined instrumentation shines brightest, and why adopting it is the most effective way for companies to future-proof their operations.
Software-defined instrumentation is not only disrupting the test and measurement space, but due to its adaptable nature, it’s helping to deliver new results and findings, and increasing our knowledge and capabilities. The innovations that will shape the future in 10 years are anybody’s guess. What’s certain, though, is that software-defined instrumentation will play a major role in the evolutionary path of technology. We’ve only just begun to tap the potential of such tools.