Remote Access Hardware Laboratories: Are these useful and why not just use simulation? By EMONA TIMS

In the wake of the recent devastation in Puerto Rico, which disabled travel about the region, and with the incoming deluge of IoT device usage, this article seeks to explore the relevance of “remote access”, sometimes known as “virtual” hardware laboratories for use in EE and ECE engineering courses. EE and ECE courses are uniquely positioned to make use of remote access labs because the signals being viewed ie: electrical signals, are already abstracted and mediated to the user via the oscilloscope. You are not controlling a tank of water or a mechanical device you can touch, but are only ever viewing signals on an oscilloscope screen even when seated in front of, and in contact with, the equipment.

Firstly, let us quickly define what is meant by “remote access” hardware labs. We are referring to a traditional hands-on “knobs & switches & connections” laboratory equipment which can be fully controlled and utilised remotely. By “remotely” it is meant via a browser-based control panel GUI with the actual physical equipment communicating to the browser via a LAN or WAN. The access can either be local ie; in the same lab, or at a very large distance ie: international via the internet.

The key issue is the relative learning benefit of this methodology. Let us consider that there are 3 modes of delivery for a laboratory component of an ECE course. The first is “hardware”: the student sitting in contact with and in front of the real hardware experiment in the lab. The second is “simulation”: the student controls a program which mathematically simulates the signal processing of the circuits in the experiment. No experiment equipment is involved at all. Thirdly is control of the experiment via a distance, BUT still controlling real circuits and viewing real signals; not simulations.

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