Data Acquisition Systems Test Anything, Anywhere

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Data acquisition systems have evolved to provide more accurate, fast and repetitive data. With these, you can acquire any signal from anywhere and produce reliable results

SHWETA DHADIWAL BAID


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Data acquisition is the most important task for any system or application that involves signals. Acquiring the accurate data and analysing it correctly is critical for applications ranging from healthcare, automation and control to space exploration. You need to acquire data to test a system, make useful analysis and give feedback signal to the system. It is the first and most important step in any project.

All the applications have their own requirements of speed of acquiring, transferring and representing the data. Keeping in sync, there has been a substantial advancement in data acquisition systems (DAQs). “Use of wireless technology, image processing algorithms, and faster and higher-resolution analogue-to-digital converters (ADCs) has increased. New DAQ components have made the systems smaller, faster, cheaper and able to pack in more applications,” shares Shirish Patwardhan, CTO, KPIT Cummins.

“Intelligent DAQs with inbuilt field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), developments in bus technologies and virtual instrumentation are some of the latest and fast-moving developments in data acquisition systems,” informs Pradeep Nair, business development manager, National Instruments.

Arif Fahim from AD Instruments explains, “Computer-based data systems reduce a lot of effort put in manual calculations and help in producing error-free analysis.”

Components of data acquisition systems like sensors, transducers, ADCs, interfaces and application software have undergone a revolutionary change, making DAQ systems faster and more reliable.

Sensors go wireless
Sensors are the first point of contact between the system under observation and the DAQ system. Transducers sense physical phenomena like temperature, pressure and strain and convert these into useful electric signals that are actually measured by the DAQ system. These signals undergo signal conditioning depending on the quality of the signal acquired.

As wireless sensors are becoming popular, Nair cites the example of monitoring the flooding Yamuna. He explains, “You can place the sensors along the bank to measure the temperature and water level and push the data to a central server without a wired connection. Earlier, these projects were not touched due to infeasibility and cost involved in laying long cables along the river.”

Fahim feels that wireless sensor technology is very useful for data acquisition in life science research.
“Sensors available today are much more accurate and sensitive and do a fantastic job. There are smart sensors with built-in intelligence, radio frequency identification (RFID) based sensors and micro-electromechanical sensors that can acquire data from small areas,” says Nair.

“Transducer electronics datasheet (TEDS) sensor is another new type becoming increasing popular in DAQ. Essentially, it is a transducer with attached memory that contains information in itself and can configure to any kind of DAQ,” adds Nair.

High-speed digitisation
While acquiring data in certain applications, both the rate at which you need to acquire a sample as well as the resolution at which it gets digitised are important.

“Applications in aerospace and defence industry centre around recording signals either coming from RADAR returns or surveillance systems. Here the sampling requirement is very high and there is a need to have sustained data throughout,” explains Santosh Reddy, application engineer, Agilent Technologies.

“Earlier, the user had to trade off between speed and resolution; for very high speed (in megahertz), you had to compromise on resolution (8-bit). But today you have the hardware that can acquire at very high speed coupled with high-resolution ADC,” explains Nair. There are digitisers capable of sampling at high speeds of mega-samples/second and giga-samples/second. This allows you to have very precise measurement at very high speed.

The resolution can be misguiding, though. Reddy explains, “The resolution mentioned on the datasheet is usually the ADC resolution, but the actual performance is usually much lower due to system noise. To get the true picture of the data acquisition card performance, you need to examine beyond the specification. You must ask for the effective number of bits (ENOB) specification.”

Interfaces for data transfer
With computers entering the test and measurement world, a variety of options for interconnectivity such as Ethernet, USB and high-speed IEEE 1394 have become available for data transfer externally. Legacy systems made use of GPIB/HPIB buses that had severe data throughput limitations. Then came the peripheral component interconnect (PCI) local bus, which was one of the most widely used internal buses for the PCs in 90’s and provided speed of 133 MB/s. In 2004, PCI Express, the successor to PCI, increased the throughput to more than 250 MB/s.

USB connectivity for a data acquisition card brings along a lot of attractive features like low cost, ease of use, plug-and-play functionality and built-in operating system configuration. “USB DAQ cards provide analogue input channels, analogue output channels, digital input/output (I/O) channels and counter/timer channels with a throughput of 480 Mbps,” shares Reddy. However, USB poses the limitation of length as the cable can be extended up to 30 metres only.

Ethernet technology is a standard and now widely used for interconnectivity in standalone systems. It can take the advantage of remote connectivity to new or existing Ethernet network. Today, the most common Ethernet networks are 10BASE-T and 100BASE-TX, which transfer data at 10 Mbps and 100 Mbps, respectively. As PC technology evolves faster than test and measurement, it is important to select a futureproof bus technology.

Despite the advantages of wide availability of USB or existing Ethernet network, there is still a need to connect and convert from one bus technology into another to match the existing set-up. Bridge products allow you to connect the USB/Ethernet to GPIB, as the experts feel that the future of bus technology will comprise mixed I/O connectivity.

“Wireless data transfer using wireless interfaces like Wi-Fi network, Zigbee, Bluetooth and GPRS has now been accommodated in modern DAQ systems. In this, the sensor will acquire the data and put it via GPRS network to your mobile phone. This allows you to push the data anywhere in the world with no limitation as telecom is already a matured network,” explains Nair.

Shrink in size
The components of data acquisition have changed in terms of complexity and density. “Due to advances in semiconductor technology, data acquisition systems have become smaller and pack a much larger number of channels into the same footprint,” states Reddy. “Some modules have integrated signal conditioning elements onto the data acquisition card.”

“DAQ systems with plug-and-play feature have become increasingly popular because of their portability, ease of operation and easy PC connectivity with high-speed USB,” shares Nair. The sensor-USB connectivity allows you to enjoy the flexibility of acquiring signals from any type of sensors.

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