From a Distance: Remote Operation of Research Equipment
By Carolyn Krause

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Larry Allard (seated) and Edgar Voelkl demonstrate the remote operation of an electron microscope. Photograph by Tom Cerniglio.

ORNL has received DOE 2000 funding to conduct experiments involving collaboration by electronic means among geographically separated researchers, including the remote operation of research equipment, such as electron microscopes and neutron diffractometers at a research reactor. This equipment can be operated over the Internet by researchers at other facilities, thus bringing the user facility to the user. The collaboration also includes researchers at LBNL, ANL, NIST, the University of Illinois, and industry. To help scientists share and record their observations over the Internet, ORNL has also received funding to continue its development of electronic notebooks.


In an era of shrinking research funds but rising demand for rapid research results, managers in the DOE system face several problems.

DOE believes that many of these challenges can be met if scientific research involving dispersed but interacting collaborators can be done—from a distance.

Enhanced R&D collaborations are thought to be achievable through use and development of new computational, communication, and distributed computing technologies that connect researchers across the nation, even around the world. The Internet is the best known vehicle of computer connectivity that gives people access to various computer technologies. The DOE philosophy was published in late 1996 in a document entitled Department of Energy DOE 2000 Initiative. DOE’s objectives are to conduct research, promote the development of new computing technologies for simulations of experiments, and establish two or three “collaboratory” pilot projects. A collaboratory is defined as “an open laboratory spanning multiple geographical areas where collaborators interact via electronic means—‘working together apart.’ ” It’s a virtual place in cyberspace that enables researchers to collaborate and even conduct experiments remotely. According to the DOE document, the “vision for the collaboratory projects is to develop and demonstrate within three to five years the tools that allow remote workers and facilities to be electronically linked so closely that it is ‘better than being there.’ ”

Researchers at ORNL, particularly C. E. (Tommy) Thomas of the Instrumentation and Controls Division, have helped shape DOE thinking about remote operation of research equipment by world-class scientists using the Internet’s World Wide Web. Thomas was on assignment in 1996 to assist with the National Collaboratories/ Virtual Laboratory project (Distributed Collaborative Environments and Facilities Online), sponsored by DOE’s Office of Energy Research, Office of Computational and Technology Research, Mathematical, Information, and Computational Sciences Division.

According to David B. Nelson, DOE’s associate director of Energy Research for Computational and Technology Research, “The goals of the DOE 2000 initiative are to develop and demonstrate collaborative tools that will help integrate R&D program activities, introduce new paradigms for the remote use of DOE science facilities, and accelerate the development of new communication, computational, and distributed computing capabilities to enhance R&D collaborations.” To help meet DOE’s vision of what its laboratories should be doing after 2000, DOE’s Mathematical, Information, and Computational Sciences Division funds winning proposals for R&D partnerships for pilot applications of collaboratory technologies.

 
Electronic Notebooks for Scientists

Scientists traditionally use paper notebooks to keep track of their ideas for experiments and notes on experimental setups, observations, and research results. These notebooks are kept on bookshelves or in file cabinets.

Is there a more efficient alternative in the age of computers and the Internet? Why manually copy documentation into a paper notebook when you can cut and paste it electronically and later do searches to quickly find a special entry?

ORNL’s Al Geist recommends the recordkeeping tool of the imminent future—the electronic notebook. A notebook accessed by computer offers scientists all the features of the traditional paper notebook, along with the capability to accept multimedia input (audio and video clips) and computer-generated images, tables, and graphs placed by drag-and-drop.

Geist and Noel Nachtigal, researchers in ORNL’s Computer Science and Mathematics Division, have developed a prototype for an electronic notebook that is being used by a dozen different groups around the country (and further development of the prototype is continuing in 1998, thanks to DOE 2000 funds earmarked for Collaboration Technology R&D projects). It is particularly useful for collaborating scientists involved in remote operation of research equipment for conducting experiments.

“Right now,” Geist says, “the biggest obstacle is the legal acceptance of the electronic notebook. Once this happens, electronic notebooks will soar in popularity—not only for collaborating groups but also for private users.”

An electronic notebook is a repository for objects that document scientific research. It can be used to enter, retrieve, or query objects such as text, sketches, images, tables, and graphs. “Electronic notebooks are not calculators, nor are they chat spaces,” Geist explains. “They hold a static record of ideas, experiments, and results.”

Electronic notebooks have many advantages over paper notebooks. “They can be shared by researchers, even those collaborators separated by distance,” Geist says. “They can be accessed remotely through the Internet. They can’t be lost or destroyed. It is easy to incorporate not only computer files and experimental data but also multimedia into an electronic notebook. It can easily be searched for information. It can contain hyperlinks to other information, such as a reference paper stored elsewhere on the Internet.”

ORNL is collaborating with researchers from DOE’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) to design a common notebook architecture that will allow interoperation of the different groups’ notebooks.

“What that means,” Geist explains, “is that I could use ORNL’s notebook interface to view entries that were written by my friend at PNNL using his own notebook. Also, we could share input tools we each develop.”

A demonstration version of ORNL’s notebook is available on the Internet’s World Wide Web (http://www.epm.ornl.gov/~geist/java/applets/enote/). It can be accessed by any authorized user from any type of computer (platform) that has a Web browser.

In developing the Web-based electronic notebook architecture, the ORNL researchers are focusing on ensuring the security of the notebook. Electronic notebook entries can be digitally authenticated and signed, individually or collectively. They can be electronically time-stamped and notarized. While entries cannot be modified once signed, the pages can be annotated and forward-referenced. Entries can be secured by encryption, both in transit and in storage. All these securities can be performed transparently to the users, thus adding no complexity to the user interface.

The research was initially supported by ORNL’s internal Laboratory Directed Research and Development Program. Funding now comes from DOE’s Mathematical, Information, and Computational Sciences Division.

The ORNL prototype uses Common Gateway Interface scripts to access notebook pages. The researchers are developing Java applets to enter objects in the notebook, such as a pen-based sketch pad. Of course, their ideas for making improvements and their progress on this project are recorded in their electronic notebooks.

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Al Geist demonstrates the electronic notebook for Vice President Al Gore during his recent visit to ORNL. Photograph by Tom Cerniglio.

In March 1997, ORNL received $850,000 in DOE 2000 funding to begin work on four projects. Four ORNL electron microscopes are now among nearly a dozen microscopes at DOE facilities that will be remotely operated as part of the new Materials MicroCharacterization Collaboratory pilot project supported by the DOE 2000 initiative. The other ORNL project receiving DOE 2000 initiative funding is the development of electronic notebooks.

DOE’s approach in FY 1997 is to provide $8.5 million for three project areas: Advanced Computational Testing and Simulation (ACTS), Technology R&D Projects, and National Collaboratories (including secure online facilities, infrastructure and tool research and development, and collaboratory pilot projects). ACTS might include large computer simulations of airline explosions; nuclear weapons for “science-based stockpile stewardship”; and environmentally hazardous plumes in air, surface water, geological layers, and groundwater. Many of these simulations would deal with scenarios for which experimental data will never be available. However, for researchers to receive funding for such simulation work, the software they develop for a specific simulation must be generic and reusable by the scientific community for other types of computational problems. ORNL’s Computational Center for Industrial Innovation may receive funding for such activities.

Secure online facilities is another area for which ORNL is well positioned. At a DOE conference in March 1996 in Reston, Virginia, two demonstrations of online facilities were presented to Secretary of Energy Hazel O’Leary and conferees. The presenters were researchers from Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) and ORNL. Larry Allard, Ted Nolan, and Edgar Voelkl, all of ORNL’s Metals and Ceramics Division, showed that an expensive electron microscope at ORNL’s High Temperature Materials Laboratory (HTML) can be operated remotely from Reston. O’Leary saw the magnified image of the sample on the computer screen and watched as Allard tapped a key to change the magnification and position of the sample. (See section below for details on remote operation of the microscope and other ORNL instruments.) Although they were not presented to Secretary O’Leary, ORNL’s Online Harsh Environment Laboratory and Remote Experimental Environment for Fusion Experiments (described later in this article) also were demonstrated at Reston.

After the conference, an ORNL group formed the Secure Online Facilities (SOFA) committee, chaired by Michael Wright, a nuclear physicist in the Instrumentation and Controls Division. The committee consists of more than 30 ORNL staff members from 10 divisions. The committee meets biweekly to foster cooperation among researchers, develop skills and ideas, and prepare joint proposals for funding.

“One reason ORNL got DOE’s attention in Reston is that we pitch low-cost tools for online facilities,” Wright says. “We have shown that you can remotely operate an electron microscope or a harsh environment laboratory using commonly used hardware, such as a personal computer with browser software and an Internet connection; inexpensive hardware, such as small cameras that cost less than $100 apiece; and inexpensive or free software for video, audio, and computer control. We are looking for recipes—the right combinations of hardware and software that produce an illusion of presence and control in a remote area. Of course, the tools are primitive, so we are not yet ready for prime time. But, we have demonstrated that these tools, once refined, offer the potential of giving the user the feeling of being there.”

Because the World Wide Web is so accessible and easy to use, Wright says that ORNL researchers are writing special software (e.g., Java applets) so that remote operation of research equipment can be Web-based. For example, Java applets (miniprograms written in the Java programming language developed by Sun Microsystems) are being written to simulate pushbuttons on a microscope or in a control room; all the user has to do is click on a button to change the microscope’s focus or to alter the angle at which a sample is placed in a neutron beam from a reactor. Other applets can be used to plot data.

One of the jobs of the SOFA committee is to get experimental devices hooked up to the Web. An equally important job of the committee is to ensure that these online facilities are secure.

“Security of online facilities is the number one concern for the DOE 2000 managers,” Wright says. “Computers linked through the Internet are vulnerable. For example, someone could attack your computer by flooding it with invalid e-mail messages. Your user name and password alone do not guarantee that your computer is protected from attack. Hackers can sniff out passwords. So, the password should be encrypted so that only a specific code, or key, can restore the original data, or decrypt the message. More sophisticated security measures, such as public key encryption, digital signatures, and certificates, may be needed. Encrypted passwords will be needed to ensure that only authenticated users use online facilities.”

For online facilities, in FY 1997 DOE spent $3 million for computing infrastructure—building a high-speed network and developing application programming interfaces so that generic programs can interact with each other and with the operating systems of different types of computers.

Also in FY ’97, DOE spent another $3 million for collaboratory pilot projects. Funding for subsequent years is expected to equal or exceed these amounts. The collaboratory projects are expected to involve geographically separated personnel and facilities and to address a problem of national significance related to DOE’s missions in energy resources and technology, environmental science and technology, and national security. Such studies will include demonstrations similar to the following ones performed in 1996 at ORNL.

At a press conference in March 1997 in Washington, Martha Krebs, director of DOE’s Office of Energy Research, announced DOE 2000 support for the Materials Micro-characterization Collaboratory (MMC) pilot project. In the materials collaboratory, ORNL researchers will be working with researchers from ANL, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the DOE-funded microscopy center at the University of Illinois at Urbana—Champaign. Contributing partners in the research will be the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and six manufacturers of microscopes and control systems: Philips, JEOL, Hitachi, R. J. Lee, Gaton, Inc., and Emispec. This 3-year, $11-million effort includes matching funds from DOE Energy Research’s Basic Energy Sciences, Division of Materials Sciences and from DOE Energy Efficiency’s Office of Transportation Technologies, Office of Heavy Vehicle Technologies, as well as in-kind contributions from NIST and industry.

ORNL facilities and principal investigators involved in the first year of the collaboratory are electron microscopes in ORNL’s SHaRE program (Kathi Alexander) and at HTML (Allard, Voekl, and Nolan), the Neutron Residual Stress Facility at the High Flux Isotope Reactor, or HFIR (Wright and Cam Hubbard), and ORNL-supported X-ray beam lines at the Advanced Photon Source at ANL and the National Synchrotron Light Source at DOE’s Brookhaven National Laboratory (Gene Ice). Additional ORNL facilities will be included in later years.

Thanks to DOE 2000 funding, four ORNL electron microscopes will be available to authorized outside users through the Internet. They are the Phillips CM 200F field emission transmission electron microscope, the Phillips XL30 scanning electron microscope (both in Building 5500), the Hitachi S-4500 scanning electron microscope, and the Hitachi HF-2000 cold-field emission transmission electron microscope (both in HTML).

The collaborators will try to make these user facilities more user-friendly. They will automate routine functions as much as possible and provide an easy, effective mouse-driven user interface. They will also add features to ensure data security and keep unauthorized users off the system.

Collaborative research projects among scientists at the participating laboratories will concentrate on critical problems involving surfaces and interfaces, which are important in controlling the behavior of advanced materials. Specific microscope research will focus on catalysts used to control emissions from automobiles and diesel trucks as well as interfaces between substrates and the coatings designed to protect them against corrosion.

Ed Oliver, associate director for Computing, Robotics, and Education at ORNL, says, “Collaboratories would make expensive facilities like the electron microscopes in HTML much more usable and much more productive. Our massively parallel computers run 24 hours a day. We would like for the tools in the user facilities to be that busy, too. That’s why ORNL projects for remote operation software development are being supported by our Laboratory Directed Research and Development Fund. By making it possible for a researcher far away to use some of these tools remotely, we can greatly enhance our user facilities’ practicality and affordability and possibly have them working around the clock, too. It’s more bang for the buck.”


REAL-LIFE SCENARIOS AT ORNL

A Million-Dollar Microscope

Larry Allard sits beside a sophisticated and unusually powerful electron microscope at HTML. The microscope, one of the few such instruments in the world, brings up on a computer screen a clear digital image of a sample of fullerene carbon material, magnified 400,000 times. Suddenly, the magnification and angle of the sample in the microscope’s electron beam change. However, neither Allard nor anyone else in the room is at the controls. A colleague, Edgar Voelkl, is adjusting the instrument from San Diego, California—far away from the Tennessee laboratory.

Three years ago, Voelkl wrote the software to operate HTML’s Hitachi HF-2000 field-emission transmission electron microscope from a computer keyboard. The software also allows automated processing of images of magnified samples captured by charge-coupled device (CCD) cameras instead of film.

In 1995, a $200 commercial software package from Farallon called TimbuktuPRO became available. A user who has TimbuktuPRO on his computer can remotely control a distant computer, such as the one controlling a research instrument. This remote operation program enables researchers to run the $1.6-million microscope by computer remotely through the Internet. Any researcher with this software, an appropriate personal computer, an Internet link, and proper authentication can operate the ORNL microscope from practically anywhere.

Though hundreds of miles apart, Voelkl and Allard can see each other because, on the top of each computer is a $90 Connectix QuickCam camera. Through the “telepresence” mode, they can talk to each other much like scattered participants in a teleconference who “see” each other on a computer screen as they converse, using speakerphones or computer sound cards for voice contact. Operators can also send electronic messages instantaneously via keyboard using “flash” mail.

The microscope is controlled by Farallon’s TimbuktuPRO remote operation software. On his remote computer screen Voelkl can see the local microscope and the image of the magnified sample. By pressing computer keys, he can control the microscope focus and the sample position and magnification, and he can scan the sample with the electron beam. A user can then remotely operate the microscope with the mouse by clicking on an appropriate screen button that changes the microscope’s focus or sample position or sample magnification.

Once the user sees the digital image of the sample on the screen, he can download it and save it on his own computer, as well as on the file servers in HTML. Collaborating scientists who are authorized to access the file servers can view the image and discuss the results over the Internet. Such remote control of the ORNL microscope has been demonstrated by ORNL researchers in Washington, D.C.; Nashville; and Detroit, where participants at Focus Hope (which puts unemployed people to work making parts for automobiles and diesel trucks) also operated the electron microscope during a Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles demonstration in March 1996 at ORNL. In November 1996, students in an electron microscopy class at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania operated the ORNL microscope remotely and had live audio and video contact with their ORNL collaborator using teleconferencing tools. In the future, Voelkl says, his group will write software to allow the microscope to be controlled over the World Wide Web. Al Geist of ORNL’s Computer Science and Mathematics Division is writing Java applets that generate an array of icons, or pushbuttons, on the computer screen. These controls will be linked to real controls on the microscope, and images will be returned to the remote user in the form of Web pages.

Because user facilities like HTML allow visiting researchers from U.S. industries and universities to take advantage of ORNL’s expensive, state-of-the-art equipment, such a remote operation capability opens up tremendous possibilities. A scientist in another city could simply send a sample to ORNL and analyze it on a million-dollar microscope without ever leaving the office. This strategy reduces researcher time, travel costs, and the need to give users training in using the microscope. Remote operation brings the user facility to the user.

Remotely Operated Reactor Instrument

Until recently, a scientist who wanted to conduct an experiment on a research reactor had to undergo safety training and risk exposure to low-level radiation. Now, widely scattered scientists can remotely measure the angles and intensities at which reactor neutrons are scattered from a target material to determine its structure. These scientists can do a neutron-scattering experiment at a research reactor without being there.

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Mohana Yethiraj checks a small-angle neutron scattering spectrometer that will be operated remotely for neutron science experiments at ORNL’s High Flux Isotope Reactor.

Thanks to the Web Virtual Laboratory (WeVL) project at ORNL, scientists will remotely monitor and control the DIXIE double-crystal small-angle neutron-scattering spectrometer at ORNL’s HFIR, which is a DOE user facility. The WeVL, or Web interface for a small-angle neutron-scattering experiment at ORNL, was developed by Royce Sayer and Richard Ward of the Computational Physics and Engineering Division; Mohana Yethiraj of the Solid State Division; A. S. (Buddy) Bland of the Center for Computational Sciences; and Al Geist.

If you are a scientist authorized to access the WeVL home page on the Web, you will first see the title, “Welcome to the DIXIE Virtual Laboratory.” Then at the top right corner you will see a photograph of the spectrometer. The home page offers you a chance to click on icons so you can remotely select a crystalline sample to place in the neutron beam, remotely control the angular range of the neutron detector (which measures neutron intensities at different angles), and select the intervals at which the neutrons scattered from the sample are counted.

Sitting at your computer at work, you remotely maneuver the crystal in the neutron spectrometer, positioning it at a specific angle with respect to the incoming neutron beam. You get video display of the apparatus, so you can see it and the sample move as you control them with the mouse. You wait for new results to appear on the screen. Soon the data—the numbers of neutrons that are scattered at a variety of angles—are displayed in tabular and graphical form. The number of neutrons is plotted against each angle at which neutrons are scattered when the neutron beam struck the target.

You go home at 6:00 p.m. to eat dinner with your family. By 11:00 p.m., you want to know whether the crystal and detector are properly positioned to produce good data. So you turn on your computer and camera system and log in. A video display of the apparatus shows that the detector is aligned at a good angle. You view the graphical display of the data. You check the “electronic notebook” to see the comments of other researchers viewing the data and analyzing data plots. All this gives you a warm feeling.

The ORNL researchers started the project using LabVIEW, a commercial software package that was installed for instrument control, monitoring, and data analysis. LabVIEW stores data and plots neutron counts for each scattering angle to provide information on the structure of a crystal in the neutron beam.

The researchers then set up a user interface between LabVIEW and ORNL’s Web server because the Netscape Navigator browser works with LabVIEW. They then implemented the prototype Web user interface and tested it with the hardware. Finally, they set it up for facility security so only authorized researchers (with approved user names and passwords) could access the HFIR instrument through the WeVL home page.

DOE officials say that WeVL is needed to increase use of the HFIR beams and facility, expand the user community, reduce travel costs, encourage multi-institutional collaborations, and minimize low-level radiation exposure (some scientists don’t want to be exposed to any radiation from reactors). The DIXIE experiment was chosen for the pilot project because the neutron count rates are low, the chance of damage to hardware through remote control is minimal, and data sets are small (limited to detector angle, number of neutrons counted, time, monitor counts).

Remotely controlled experiments will be carried out at HFIR in 1998, thanks to DOE 2000 funding. The first experiments will be similar to the ones performed in 1996 by Cam Hubbard, a researcher in the Metals and Ceramics Division, who monitored and controlled a neutron-scattering instrument at HFIR from his office 3 miles away in HTML. Hubbard and Wright have adapted the HFIR facility for remotely operated residual stress studies, and such experiments are expected to be carried out in 1998 by researchers at facilities outside Oak Ridge.

Remote Participation in Fusion Experiments

What makes you feel like you’re there even though you’re not? It’s “telepresence,” a term that may soon become common in our vocabulary.

David Greenwood of Information Technology Services, Lockheed Martin Energy Systems, has experience with a crude telepresence arrangement that “sort of gives you the feeling of presence in the control room of an experimental fusion device.” The project is called the Remote Experimental Environment for Fusion Experiments.

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Controllable view of the control room of the experimental DIII-D fusion device seen remotely through a World Wide Web site. Users in Oak Ridge and Livermore, California, can observe and control actions at the San Diego fusion device.

Greenwood, who has worked with ORNL’s Fusion Energy Division for 19 years, interacts with fusion researchers at ORNL, Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and General Atomics, which operates the DIII-D tokamak for fusion energy research. Some of these researchers are located at the previously mentioned labs and others are working on an experiment at the San Diego tokamak, but all the researchers involved in the experiment can interact with and view operations in the tokamak control room.

“We started out with a Web home page so we could review our scientific proposals, read reports, and archive all our mail,” Greenwood said. “Then we decided we’d like to participate in remote planning meetings and watch experiments in progress. We also wanted to know if an experiment was active or if our fellow researchers had gone to lunch.”

Four cameras were set up in the DIII-D control room and one camera was placed in the conference room. Microphones were also set up in these areas. MBONE (a free software) was installed for audio and video monitoring. The name stands for “multicast backbone.” Electronic mail is an example of unicasting—the message travels point to point, from computer to computer. In multicasting, the message is sent out to everybody, and those who want it reach out and receive it.

White Pine’s CU-SeeMe software (originated at Cornell University), which, like MBONE, provides audio and video monitoring, was also installed so that remote participants could use whichever software was more convenient. Java applets were developed by Princeton for the Web page so that the movable camera in the control room could be controlled remotely by clicking on buttons on the computer screen. The home page for the fusion researchers features a photograph of the DIII-D control room and a map showing the location of cameras as part of the video system control.

“To avoid having multiple users try to move the camera at the same time,” Greenwood said, “we decided to schedule camera control according to who is doing the experiment that day. If Princeton is doing the experiment, Princeton gets to control the camera. If Oak Ridge is running the experiment, the camera is controlled by Oak Ridge.”

In a recent talk, Greenwood discussed the sociological aspects, or human factors, of telepresence. “There are some problems with our early attempts at telepresence,” he said. “The vocabulary differs among sites, especially with foreigners involved in our international experiments. Time differences can be a problem; some collaborators may want to sleep when others want to meet online to discuss an aspect of the experiment. We found that DIII-D operators were initially uncomfortable with the cameras and microphones in the control room. Even though time conflicts and other issues will always be present, many other problems are being reduced as people become more familiar with the technologies and embrace the need to improve communications.

“Although collaborators are encouraged to work more together, there is still stiff competition among them, making them resistant to sharing information. However, one surprising thing has come out of this experimental telepresence arrangement. The pressure to improve communication between groups actually improved communication within groups.”

Greenwood said that Livermore and MIT have used MBONE to control fusion experiments and that Princeton has posted information on sessions of fusion meetings. “It’s difficult now to see viewgraphs on MBONE,” he noted, “but that will change as people learn to make viewgraphs that are visible on this medium.” It’s also difficult to recognize some people on the computer screen using CU-SeeMe because they are shown in black and white. But this problem may be solved, Greenwood said, by the color version of CU-SeeMe.

To make telepresence more user-friendly, Al Geist is developing Java applets and electronic notebooks to improve interactions among the dispersed researchers.

The Remote Experimental Environment for Fusion Experiments project recently received national recognition. The project was selected as one of the 60 finalists in the 1996 National Information Infrastructure Awards program, chosen from a field of more than 850 nominees. The project was a finalist in the Next Generation Award category. The awards program seeks to recognize the nation’s most creative and beneficial uses of communication technologies in 10 different categories that touch on all areas of America’s work, play, and community life.

Online Harsh Environment Laboratory

ORNL has a test bed that simulates a harsh industrial environment. It’s not the type of bed you’d want to lie on; in fact, while you might want to know what’s going on in the test bed, you’d prefer to be far away from the action.

The test bed has steam vents that can produce up to 100% humidity and a temperature of 500F. The conditions in the bed are measured by a humidity sensor, a hydrogen sensor, a pH monitor, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide monitors, and thermocouples. These data are relayed electronically to a computer loaded with LabVIEW software, which provides video control and real-time data acquisition.

Users can have Internet-based remote access to data acquisition and control of the test bed, as well as real-time video and video conferencing. They can remotely control the experimental setup and parameters and view the control parameters, data, and graphs plotted from the data on the computer screen.

“The client requests data from our server when needed,” says William Holmes, an engineer in ORNL’s Instrumentation and Controls Division. “The first one to ask for control of the facility gets it. Those who ask later are denied. That way we don’t have two different people trying to control it at the same time.”

ORNL’s test bed is a test case for Michael Wright’s SOFA Committee. It shows that low-cost computer tools can create a secure online harsh environment laboratory. It was also the first secure online facility to have an outside user. Recently, a researcher from the Electric Power Research Institute in California viewed data from a hydrogen sensor at the test bed.

Besides LabVIEW, the tools used for the test bed include Farallon’s TimbuktuPRO remote operation software, an ISDN link or a 28.8-kilobaud modem, video cameras, and White Pine’s color-enhanced CU-SeeMe (color, chat box, white board), which makes possible teleconferencing. Remote control, data acquisition, and video conferencing can be accomplished using either an Internet link, an ISDN link, or a 28.8-kilobaud modem over a standard telephone line. Thanks to these tools, you can grasp the situation without actually being there. And someday, improved tools should make you feel as if you are really there even though you aren’t. “We’re pitching our ideas for improving these tools to other potential sponsors as well as DOE,” Wright says.

“With enough research and development work, remote control of research equipment should be ready for prime time.”

Carolyn Krause is editor of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory Review.

  


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