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New European research will improve interaction between virtual and physical worlds

Aarhus University

With a new EUR 8 million research project, Aarhus University will spearhead a project that aims to develop a new form of interaction between physical objects and their computer control using different software models. The technology will make it easier to develop credible cyber-physical systems (CPS), which will be very important for industry's ability to innovate in the future

Among the growing number of physical objects that surround us, small computers control a considerable number of different functions. Development has exploded in recent decades and this has placed new demands on industry. What do you do when the many computers need to talk to each other? And how do you ensure that they adapt as well as possible to the context in which they will be used?

Fewer physical prototypes

In a major European research project called INTO-CPS, with a diverse consortium made up of 11 partners from industry and academia, will spend the next three years creating new methods and tools that will make it both easier and cheaper to validate computer-based products. And there is an urgent need to get started, according to Professor Peter Gorm Larsen, Aarhus University, who is the coordinator of the project.

"We're used to taking it for granted that things work. And if they don't, we have to find out what's wrong. But we now find ourselves in a reality with so many computer-based systems that it can be almost impossible to take in. Industry in particular is facing an acute challenge with more and more 'cyber' control of physical objects, and we therefore need to develop new tools that are capable of combining different models of both 'cyber' and 'physical' elements in a virtual world to design and validate new products in the innovation process long before investments in physical prototypes come into question," he says.

Physical prototypes are often extremely expensive, and it is therefore hoped that the new tools can eventually reduce their numbers significantly.

100 computers in your car

TWT in Germany is one of the project's case companies, and it helps manufacturers such as BMW and Audi with simulations and models of prototypes. Professor Larsen specifically mentions the car industry as an illustrative example of this technological development.

"If you're driving a car built around the turn of the millennium, there probably aren't many computers controlling its functions. If you buy a modern car, however, you can be pretty sure that it involves more than 100 different small computers that control everything from the keys and brakes to cruise control and automatic parking functionality. It is clear that this development provides the car industry with completely new challenges in both the development and the test stages," says Professor Larsen.

Quite specifically, the researchers will design a new development and test platform for the project's four European case companies. In addition to TWT, these include a manufacturer of train doors, a manufacturer of air conditioning systems and a manufacturer of agricultural machinery. Common to all the companies are products that have close integration between their 'cyber' and 'physical' parts, with development activities that are extremely expensive - particularly due to prototype development and tests.

Better and cheaper prototypes and tests

The test platform will be based on technology that makes it possible to produce different models that can be simulated together and providing virtual 3D model videos of both specific prototypes and their application contexts.

In the example of the car, this could be a virtual prototype of a vehicle linked to a physical prototype of a new type of wheel. In this way, the researchers hope to gain more knowledge of the interaction between a product's physical parts, its computer systems and its surroundings.

"A new technological approach is required if we're to have complete faith in our computer-controlled products. For example, how do the many computers in the car react to the new wheels? What does it mean for their ability to communicate with each other? How do the wheels work if you're driving at 200 kilometres per hour and suddenly brake? And what if the road is dusty or wet? There are so many different possible failure scenarios and situations that we need to have better tools for developing, testing and carrying out quality assurance," says Professor Larsen.

The researchers aim to use the tools to try out many scenarios and describe and clarify how different types of products behave in different surroundings and usage situations in a virtual world.

This is the first step on the way towards a more systematic method for prototype development and failure prevention, which could be extremely valuable in a considerable number of industrial contexts.


Project facts

Title: Integrated Tool Chain for Model-based Design of Cyber-Physical Systems

Schedule: 1 January 2015 to 31 December 2017

Financial framework: Horizon 2020, 8 million Euro

Partners: Newcastle University, University of York, Linköping University, Controllab Products, ClearSy, TWT GmbH - Science & Innovation, Kongskilde Industries, United Technologies, Softeam

About Cyber-physical systems:

With a historically large research grant from the European Union, Aarhus University is now strengthening its research activities in cyber-physical systems. This project is producing a cyber-physical modelling technology that in the coming years is expected to have great significance for the way people can interact with the physical world around us and for industry's innovation processes.

According to Wikipedia, a cyber-physical system (CPS) "is a system of collaborating computational elements controlling physical entities". Cyber-physical systems are currently found in areas as diverse as aerospace, automotive industry, chemical processes, civil infrastructure, energy, healthcare, manufacturing, transportation, entertainment, and consumer appliances.

Ongoing advances in science and engineering will improve the link between computational and physical elements, dramatically increasing the adaptability, autonomy, efficiency, functionality, reliability, safety, and usability of cyber-physical systems. This will broaden the potential of cyber-physical systems in several dimensions, including intervention (e.g. collision avoidance), precision (e.g. robotic surgery and nano-level manufacturing), operations in dangerous or inaccessible environments (e.g. search and rescue, firefighting, and deep-sea exploration), coordination (e.g. air traffic control, war fighting), efficiency (e.g. zero net energy buildings), and augmentation of human capabilities (e.g. healthcare monitoring and delivery).

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