Gas station without pumps

2014 September 21

Narrowing the gender gap in CS

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 13:41
Tags: , , ,

Today’s post collects a few drafts of pointers to articles about narrowing the gender gap in computational fields.  The first article is from CACM,  Computing’s Narrow Focus May Hinder Women’s Participation | News | Communications of the ACM:

In her position as a professor of computer science at Union College, Barr found contextualizing computer science classes led to an increase in female enrollment. “We said, ‘let’s show them that computer science can be useful by giving themes to the introductory CS courses, so students can see their relevance,’” she said. “For us, it’s been enormously successful. Ten years ago we taught the introductory course to 29 students, and 14% of them were women. This year there were over 200 students, and 39% of them were women.” Beyond college, Barr said, she’d also like to see “a bigger funnel into the corporate world and the tech industry, with people coming from many other majors. It doesn’t have to be just CS majors.”

The suggestion there is that providing interesting applications in the intro courses helps retain student interest, particularly among female students.  The  article seems to have struck a chord with some female computer scientists.  Here, for example, is a response from Katrin Becker’s blog:

A big part of what attracted me to computer science was what I could do with what I was learning. That, and that programming is largely about lists, organizing, and puzzles—all things that women often find appealing.

Personally, I think that well-designed intro courses that excite students about the possibilities of the field would serve to retain more men as well as more women, but it is certainly possible that the effect is stronger for some groups of students than for others.  Exactly what applications are chosen may make a difference also—picking applications that fit male stereotypes (car engine controllers and missile guidance systems?) may even be counter-productive in narrowing the gender gap.

Another possible explanation for why women make up such a small part of engineering and the “hard” sciences comes from an article in The Washington Post,  Catherine Rampell: Women should embrace the B’s in college to make more later – The Washington Post:

A message to the nation’s women: Stop trying to be straight-A students.

No, not because you might intimidate easily emasculated future husbands. Because, by focusing so much on grades, you might be limiting your earning and learning potential.

The college majors that tend to lead to the most profitable professions are also the stingiest about awarding A’s. Science departments grade, on a four-point scale, an average of 0.4 points lower than humanities departments, according to a 2010 analysis of national grading data by Stuart Rojstaczer and Christopher Healy. And two new research studies suggest that women might be abandoning these lucrative disciplines precisely because they’re terrified of getting B’s.

The observation is that women are more deterred from entering a field by getting low grades than men are—they found that women who got Bs and Cs in their intro courses changed majors to ones that graded more leniently, while men with low grades continued slogging along in their initially chosen major.  The data was from economics, not engineering, departments, and I don’t know whether the same behaviors apply. The article cites another study that suggests that the same behavior occurs in STEM fields:

Arcidiacono’s research, while preliminary, suggests that women might also value high grades more than men do and sort themselves into fields where grading curves are more lenient.

The suggested action is to advise women not to be intimidated by B grades.  I don’t know whether that has been attempted anywhere, but I have my doubts that just telling people not to be afraid of Bs is really going to change their strategies for maintaining their self images.  Catherine Rampell also makes a rather careless mistake in saying

Remember, on net, many more women enter college intending to major in STEM or economics than exit with a degree in those fields. If women were changing their majors because they discovered new intellectual appetites, you’d expect to see greater flows into STEM fields, too.

The mistake is in assuming that switching to and from STEM fields is equally easy.  In fact, the much larger set of required course and longer prerequisite chains make it much easier to switch out of STEM fields than into them.  Freshmen are advised to prepare for the most restrictive major they are interested in to keep their options open.  What seems to be happening is that women bail out of the tough majors at a higher level of performance than men do.

Of course, it is a mistake to think of “STEM” as monolithic entity. From The Shriver Report – 10 Reasons Why America Needs 10,000 More Girls in Computer Science:

2. Girls Are Already Making the Grade in Bio (Science)

Using AP test-taking as a measure of pipeline illustrates the true nature of STEM participation for girls. Female test-takers exceed or are close to parity with males in psychology, calculus, biology, and chemistry, but only account for 18 percent of AP computer science test takers. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, women already make up nearly 60 percent of degree recipients in biology, a whopping 85 percent in health professions, and around 50 percent in social sciences. In fact, 20 times as many girls took the AP biology test, as did AP computer science. The majority of women in ’STEM’ fields choose life sciences, so simply saying we need to increase the number of women in STEM is a mistake. Instead, we need to narrow the conversation to focus on computing and IT fields, where the shortfall is the largest.

Not only are women already over-represented in biology at the BS level, but biology has been over-producing PhDs for a couple of decades relative to the demand, so that jobs in biology research are very difficult to get and generally pay substantially less then other science and engineering fields.  There are some very high paying jobs in biomedical research, but the demand for them far exceeds the supply—the “postdoc holding tank” in biology is enormous.

I don’t have any action items coming out of these articles—I’ve already put together a freshman design course for the bioengineering majors that did hands-on, applied work providing applications for some low-level computer programming.  While I’ll continue to try to improve that course, there aren’t many lower-division courses taught by our department for majors (the others are bioethics and a no-prereq intro to biotechnology, both of which are dominated by non-majors).  The Baskin School of Engineering has just created a Computational Media department, which will take over the game design program (a predominantly male program) from CS, but which is expected to create some new computational media courses.  we’ll have to see whether these have any effect on the number of women in computational fields at our university.

2014 September 20

Improving feedback for fan

Filed under: freshman design seminar — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 12:22
Tags: , , , , , ,

I wanted to look at the step response of the fan and of the heater, so that I could see if I could derive somewhat reasonable control parameters by theory, rather than by cut-and-try parameter fiddling.  Most of the tutorials I’ve looked at give empirical ways of tuning PID controllers, rather than theoretical ones, even ones that use Laplace transforms to explain how PID controllers work and how to determine whether or not the control loop is stable if you are controlling a linear time-invariant system with a known transfer function.

When I first looked at the fan response, I noticed a problem with my tachometer code:

The tachometer gives two pulses per revolution, but the markers used are not perfectly spaced, so I get different estimates of the speed depending which falling-edge-to-falling-edge pulse width I measure.  The difference between the two speeds is about 1.6%.

The tachometer gives two pulses per revolution, but the markers used are not perfectly spaced, so I get different estimates of the speed depending which falling-edge-to-falling-edge pulse width I measure. The difference between the two speeds is about 1.6%.

I rewrote the tachometer code to trigger on all four edges of a revolution, and to record the time at each edge in a circular buffer. This way I can use a full revolution of the fan for determining the speed, but get updated estimates every quarter revolution, available in micros_per_revolution:

volatile uint32_t old_tach_micros[4];  // time of last pulses of tachometer
	// used as a circular buffer
volatile uint8_t prev_tach_index=0;    // pointer into circular buffer
volatile uint32_t micros_per_revolution; // most recent pulse period of tachometer

#define MIN_TACH_PULSE  (100)   // ignore transitions sooner than this many
				// microseconds after previous transition

void  tachometer_interrupt(void)
{   uint32_t tach_micros = micros();

    if (tach_micros-old_tach_micros[prev_tach_index] < MIN_TACH_PULSE) return;
    prev_tach_index = (prev_tach_index+1)%4;  // increment circular buffer pointer
    micros_per_revolution= tach_micros-old_tach_micros[prev_tach_index];
    old_tach_micros[prev_tach_index] = tach_micros;
}

In setup(), I need to set up the interrupt with attachInterrupt(FAN_FEEDBACK_INT,tachometer_interrupt, CHANGE);

I think that this improved tachometer code may be a bit too much for first-time programmers to come up with. Circular buffers use a bunch of concepts (arrays, modular arithmetic) and are likely to cause a lot of off-by-one errors. Interrupts alone were a complicated enough concept for students to deal with. I don’t know whether the improvement in speed measurement would be justifiable in the freshman design course.

The new tachometer code did smooth out the measurements a lot, though, as expected—it reduces the fluctuation in measured speed to about 0.3%, which is limited by the resolution of the micros() timer I’m using on the Arduino board. I then tried recording some step responses, both for upward steps and downward steps. The upward steps are reasonably approximated by an exponential decay (like a charging curve):

The low speed is 724.7 rpm, and the high speed is 6766.3rpm. The exponential fit is not perfect, but it is certainly a good enough approximation for designing a closed-loop system.

The low speed with PWM=0 (always off) is 724.7 rpm, and the high speed with PWM=255 (always on) is 6766.3rpm. The exponential fit is not perfect, but it is certainly a good enough approximation for designing a closed-loop system.

The response to a downward step, however, is not well modeled by a simple exponential decay:

The fan spins down gradually at first (with a time constant about 1.6s), but at low speed the speed changes faster (as if the time constant dropped to about 0.6s).

The fan spins down gradually at first (with a time constant about 1.6s), but at low speed the speed changes faster (as if the time constant dropped to about 0.6s).

Note that the fan slows down much more gradually than it speeds up, which means that it is not a linear, time-invariant system. In a linear system, superimposing a step-up and a step-down would cancel, so the responses to the step up and step down should add to a constant value—the fan most definitely does not have that property.

I was curious whether the difference was just apparent for large steps, or also for small ones, so I tried steps between PWM duty cycles of 100/256 and 160/256:

A small upward step is again quick, with almost the same time constant as before.

A small upward step is again quick, with almost the same time constant as before.

The small downward step is faster than before, though still substantially slower than the upward step of the same size, and with an initially slower response than the final convergence.

The small downward step is faster than before, though still substantially slower than the upward step of the same size, and with an initially slower response than the final convergence.

I’m going to try writing a couple of ad hoc controllers for the fan, to see if they behave better than the PID controller I’ve been using: open-loop control using just  PWM=(setpoint-740)/25; a simple on/off control with a single threshold; hysteresis, using two thresholds instead of 1; PI control with no anti-windup; and a controller that goes to full on or full off when the error is large, to make a quick transition,  switching to approximately the right PWM value,  when the error is small, with PI control thereafter.

I think that the open-loop controller will have a steady, but wrong speed; the  crude on/off controllers will make an audible pulsing of the fan motor; the PI controller will suffer from overshoot when making big steps, and the on/off/PI controller should make nice steps, if I can tune it right.

I implemented all the controllers and ran a test switching between setpoints of 1000RPM and 5000RPM every 30 seconds.  Here are plots of the behavior with different control algorithms:

The PWM values computed by the various control algorithms show the integrator windup problem for PI clearly after the downward transitions—PI takes a long time to recover from the errors during the downward edge.

The PWM values computed by the various control algorithms show the integrator windup problem for PI clearly after the downward transitions—PI takes a long time to recover from the errors during the downward edge.

The mixed algorithm does a very good job of control, with little overshoot.  The simple PI algorithm has substantial overshoot, particularly when the control loop wants a PWM value outside the range [0,255]. Open loop has significant offset and wanders a bit.  On/off control oscillates at about 10hz, and adding hysteresis makes the oscillation larger but slower (about 5Hz).

The mixed algorithm does a very good job of control, with little overshoot. The simple PI algorithm has substantial overshoot, particularly when the control loop wants a PWM value outside the range [0,255]. Open loop has significant offset and wanders a bit. On/off control oscillates at about 10hz, and adding hysteresis makes the oscillation larger but slower (about 5Hz).

The errors for the mixed controller are only about ±0.3% and overshoot or ringing at the transitions <40RPM.  The simple PI controller overshoots by 340RPM and takes 20 seconds to recover from the integrator windup on the downward transition.  The open-loop controller has offset errors of about 1% and a fluctuation of about ±0.7% at the high speed, and an offset of 1% and fluctuations of about ±0.5% at the low speed.  The on/off controller has an offset of  about 0.5% at high speed with fluctuations of ±2%, and an offset of 28% with fluctuations of ±28%.  Adding hysteresis slows down the oscillations, but makes them larger (0.2% offset, fluctuations ±3% at high speed, and 44% offset with fluctuations of ±70% at low speed).The mixed algorithm which uses on/off control for large errors and PI for small errors, with back-calculation of the integral error when switching to the PI controller seems to work very well.  But would I be able to get freshmen to the point of being able to develop that themselves within a 2-unit course?  Probably not, but I might be able guide them through the development in a series of exercises that started with on/off control, then went to modeling and open-loop control, then the PI control, and finally the mixed control.  It would take most of the quarter.

2014 September 17

Putting the heater in a box

Continuing the saga of the incubator project in the recent posts:

On my to-do list for the project

  • Put the whole thing into a styrofoam box, to see whether extra venting is needed to allow things to cool down, and to see how tightly temperature can be controlled. Find a smaller bread board or prototype board to put the controller on—my current bread boards are all 6.5″ long, and the box only has room for 6″, especially since I put the resistor in the center of the 6″×12″ aluminum plate, which just fits the box. I suppose I could drill a couple more holes in the plate and mount the resistor off center, but I rather like the idea of building the controller as an Arduino shield, so that the Arduino + controller is a single unit. Another possibility is to drill a hole in the styrofoam box and run cables through the box for the resistive heater, the fan, and the thermistor. Even if the grounds are connected outside the box, this is only 8 wires. Putting the control electronics outside the box would reduce the clutter in the box and make tweaking easier

    I got this done today, by drilling a hole in the box and soldering long wires onto the resistor and the thermistor, so that all the active electronics could live outside the box. Incidentally, “drilling” did mean using a drill bit, but I held it and turned it with my fingers—styrofoam is so soft and grainy that I feared a power drill would tear out big chunks.

    Here is the interior of the styrofoam box, with the lid open.  The 6"×12" aluminum plate covers the bottom.  The thermistor is on the left, propped up by a rubber foot, the resistor in is the center, and the fan is sitting on a foam pad on the right. (The foam is to reduce noise until I can get the fan proper mounted in a baffle.)

    Here is the interior of the styrofoam box, with the lid open. The 6″×12″ aluminum plate covers the bottom. The thermistor is on the left, propped up by a rubber foot, the resistor in is the center, and the fan is sitting on a foam pad on the right. (The foam is to reduce noise until I can get the fan proper mounted in a baffle.)

    As expected, I can heat up the thermistor fairly quickly, but if I overshoot on the temperature, it takes a very long time for the closed box to cool back down. Cooling off just 1°C took over half an hour.

  • Add some low-pass filtering to the temperature measurement to reduce noise. Just adding 4 measurements in quick succession would reduce the noise and give the illusion of extra precision.

    I did this also. With the box closed, the thermistor reading is fairly stable, with fluctuations of less than 0.1°C (which was the resolution with a single thermistor reading before adding 4 successive reads).

  • The fan controller occasionally has a little glitch where the tachometer either misses a pulse or provides an extra one (I think mainly an extra one due to ringing on the opposite edge).  I could try reducing this problem in three ways: 1) changing which edge I’m triggering on, 2) using more low-pass filtering before the Schmitt trigger in the edge detector, or 3) using median filtering to throw out any half-length or double-length pulses, unless they occur as a pair.  (Hmm, the half-length pulses would occur as a pair, so this might not help unless I go to median of 5, which would be a lot of trouble.)

    I fixed this also, using two techniques:

    1. In the program I have 3 states for the interrupt routine that catches the edges: normally, I check that the edge is within 3/4 to 3/2 of the previously recorded pulse—if so I record it and continue. If it is less than 3/4 as long, I skip it, and change to a skip state. If it is more than 3/2 as long, I skip it and switch to a force state. In the skip state, I ignore the reading and switch to the force state. In the force state, I accept the pulse length (whatever it is), and switch to the normal state. With this state machine, I ignore a double-length pulse or a pair of half-length pulses together.
    2. The rising edge of the pulse from the tachometer is very slow (thanks to the RC filter of the pullup), but the falling edge is sharp. Extraneous pulses are more likely to occur if I trigger on the slow edge rather than fast edge, so I switched the polarity to make sure that I was using the falling edge (which is the rising edge of the output of the Schmitt trigger).

    I think that changing which edge I used made a bigger difference than trying to suppress the erroneous reads digitally. I no longer hear the occasional hiccup where the control algorithm tries desperately to double or half the fan speed because of a misread timing pulse.

  • Improve my anti-windup methods for both thermal and fan controllers, to reduce overshoot.

    I changed from using conditional integration and back calculation of the integration error to using a decay of the integration error based on the difference between the computed PWM setting and the limit when the limits were exceeded. I’m not sure this improved anything though, and it introduces yet another parameter to tune, so I may go back to the previous method. I did play around with the tuning parameters for the fan loop today, and realized that I still don’t have good intuition about the effect of parameter changes. I noticed that the fan control was oscillating a little (small fluctuations around the desired speed, but big enough that I could hear the changes), and I found ways to reduce the oscillations, but at the expense of slower response to step changes.

  • Improve my modeling of the thermal system, so that I can do more reasonable back calculation on setpoint change.

    I still need to do more thinking about the thermal modeling, since it is clear that I can’t afford overshoot when heating (though overshoot during slow cooling is unlikely to be a problem).

Still on my list with no progress:

  • Consider using a PID controller for the temperature to get faster response without overshoot.  (If I can reduce the noise problem.)
  • Design and build baffling for the fan to get better airflow in the box. I’ve made a little paper and wire baffle, to get better air flow over the resistor, but I’ve not done the full baffling to get good airflow in the box.
  • Figure out how to get students to come up with workable designs, when they are starting from knowing nothing. I don’t want to give them my designs, but I want to help them find doable subproblems. Some of the subproblems they come up with may be well beyond the skills that they can pick up in the time frame of the course. The more I work on this project, the more I realize that I and the students will have to be happy with them having explored the options, without getting all the problems solved.

I want to add to the list today:

  • Add changes to the cumulative error term whenever KP or TI are changed, to keep the PWM output the same after the changes—currently changing any of the control loop parameters adds a huge disturbance to the system.
  • Separate the control algorithm better from the rest of the code, so that I can use the same code base and quickly switch between different control algorithms: on/off, on/off with hysteresis, proportional control, proportional control with offset, PI control, PI control with anti-windup variants, PID control.
  • Add an option for recording the response of the system over a long time, so that I can plot input and output of the system with gnuplot. This would be nice for the fan control loop, but I think it will be essential for the temperature control loop.
  • Research control algorithms other than PI and PID, particularly for asymmteric systems like the temperature control, where I can get fairly quick response to the inputs when heating, but very slow response when cooling.

2014 September 15

Controlling the heater and fan

Here is the circuit for the heater and fan that I’ve been developing for incubator project for the freshman design course:

    Here is the circuit I've been using for playing with control loops. (The 74HC14N Schmitt trigger inverter does not have an enable input, but SchemeIt has a very limited and idiosyncratic set of schematic symbols, so I used the closest one.)

Here is the circuit I’ve been using for playing with control loops. (The 74HC14N Schmitt trigger inverter does not have an enable input, but SchemeIt has a very limited and idiosyncratic set of schematic symbols, so I used the closest one.)

Yesterday and this morning, when I was developing the controller software for the fan and resistive heater, I ran into a lot of problems with overshoot when changing the setpoints. For the fan controller I wrote One thing that helped was not accumulating integral error when the PWM signal was pinned at the lowest or highest values.”  I also switched to using RPM rather than pulse duration as the measured variable, because RPM is nearly linear with the PWM input (RPM approximately 24.1 PWM + 878). Another thing “that helped was to make a guess at the target PWM setting when the setpoint was changed (using d RPM/ d PWM =24 and the current PWM setting and RPM value), then setting the cumulative error to what it would be in steady state at that PWM. I then set the PWM to five times as far from current PWM as the target PWM to make the transition as fast as possible without increasing overshoot, making sure to clip to the legal 0..255 range.”  Because I have a reasonable model for RPM as a function of PWM, it was easy to estimate what the target PWM should be so that the cumulative error from the integrator would set the PWM value correctly once the error dropped enough that the desired PWM value was no longer pinned at the limits.

Today I decided to do a little reading to find out what other people have done about the problem of the controller overshooting when the actuator hits its limits.  It turns out that the phenomenon is know as “integrator windup“, and the two solutions I came up with are standard solutions.  Turning off the error accumulation when the actuator is at its limit and more movement in that direction is desired is known as “conditional integration” and guessing the correct setting for the cumulative error on setpoint change is a form of “back calculation”.  There are more sophisticated forms of back calculation that I might want to try implementing.  (I found a better explanation of the anti-windup scheme, which I might base my next implementation on—basically it gradually reduces the cumulative error to 0 as long as the desired setting for the actuator is past its limits.)

The temperature controller has been harder for me to tune, for several reasons:

  • The response time is very long.  Instead of oscillating around 5Hz, the period seems to be more like 90 seconds.  This means that it takes a long time to see whether an adjustment to the parameters makes a difference.
  • The temperature at the thermistor is dependent on the temperature at the resistor.  The thermal mass and thermal resistance act like an RC circuit (with temperature analogous to voltage, and power dissipated analogous to current).  Adjusting the power to the resistor via PWM changes the rate at which the temperature increases.  It also changes the eventual equilibrium temperature, but the PWM control is more directly of the rate of temperature change.
  • The heatsink and resistor continue to warm the air and the measuring thermistor even after all power to the resistor is cut off, so there is a big danger of overshoot whenever the setpoint temperature is increased.
  • The control is asymmetric—dumping 40W of power into the resistor heats it up fairly fast, but heat is only slowly dissipated when power is turned off.  Running the fan fast helps a little here, slowing down the temperature rise and speeding up the cool down, but once I put the whole thing in a closed box, it will be very difficult to cool things off if the box gets too warm.  This makes overshoot in the positive direction  a serious problem.
  • The temperature measurements are only about 0.1°C resolution, and the noise on the ADC is about ±4LSB, so it will be difficult to get tight temperature control, even with a perfectly tuned controller.
  • I don’t have a simple model of what the steady-state thermistor temperature will be given the PWM input, so I’ve had difficulty coming up with a guess about the eventual PWM value for resetting the cumulative error on a setpoint change.  I have a model for the resistor temperature in still air, but the fan makes a huge difference, both in the thermal resistance (and so both the equilibrium temperature and time constant of the resistor heating) and in the coupling between the resistor and the thermistor.

I still have a lot of things left over from a couple of days ago, and I’ve added some new things to the list.

  • Put the whole thing into a styrofoam box, to see whether extra venting is needed to allow things to cool down, and to see how tightly temperature can be controlled. I’ve put stuff in the box, but I can’t close the box with the stuff sticking out, so it doesn’t really count.
  • Design and build baffling for the fan to get better airflow in the box. I’ve made a little paper and wire baffle, to get better air flow over the resistor, but I’ve not done the full baffling to get good airflow in the box.
  • Figure out how to get students to come up with workable designs, when they are starting from knowing nothing. I don’t want to give them my designs, but I want to help them find doable subproblems.  Some of the subproblems they come up with may be well beyond the skills that they can pick up in the time frame of the course. The more I work on this project, the more I realize that I and the students will have to be happy with them having explored the options, without getting all the problems solved.
  • Find a smaller bread board or prototype board to put the controller on—my current bread boards are all 6.5″ long, and the box only has room for 6″, especially since I put the resistor in the center of the 6″×12″ aluminum plate, which just fits the box.  I suppose I could drill a couple more holes in the plate and mount the resistor off center, but I rather like the idea of building the controller as an Arduino shield, so that the Arduino + controller is a single unit.
  • Another possibility is to drill a hole in the styrofoam box and run cables through the box for the resistive heater, the fan, and the thermistor.  Even if the grounds are connected outside the box, this is only 8 wires. Putting the control electronics outside the box would reduce the clutter in the box and make tweaking easier.
  • Add some low-pass filtering to the temperature measurement to reduce noise.  Just adding 4 measurements in quick succession would reduce the noise and give the illusion of extra precision.
  • The fan controller occasionally has a little glitch where the tachometer either misses a pulse or provides an extra one (I think mainly an extra one due to ringing on the opposite edge).  I could try reducing this problem in three ways: 1) changing which edge I’m triggering on, 2) using more low-pass filtering before the Schmitt trigger in the edge detector, or 3) using median filtering to throw out any half-length or double-length pulses, unless they occur as a pair.  (Hmm, the half-length pulses would occur as a pair, so this might not help unless I go to median of 5, which would be a lot of trouble.)
  • Improve my modeling of the thermal system, so that I can do more reasonable back calculation on setpoint change.
  • Consider using a PID controller for the temperature to get faster response without overshoot.  (If I can reduce the noise problem.)
  • Improve my anti-windup methods for both thermal and fan controllers, to reduce overshoot.

2014 September 14

PWM heater and fan continued

Filed under: freshman design seminar — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 22:29
Tags: , , , , , ,

Yesterday I gave myself the following to-do list:

  • Check the VDS voltage at 4A on the nFET. Is the on-resistance still much too high?

    Yes, with the 1.8Ω resistor I get 110mV across the FET with 8.372V across the resistor, so at 4.65A I’m seeing an on-resistance of 24mΩ, still much higher than the 10mΩ I was expecting, but closer than I was getting yesterday at 1A. The voltage across the nFET does go up as the nFET warms up, but the nFET does not get too hot (up to around 45°C).

  • Try adding a 1kΩ gate resistance to slow down the transitions on the PWM, to see if that reduces the inductive spikes and the noise-coupling through the 9V power supply.

    Slowing the transitions definitely reduced the spikes, from about 13V to about 1V.  The bypass capacitors absorbed the highest-frequency spikes, and the 470µF polymer electrolytic capacitor seems to be enough—the 10µF ceramic doesn’t seem to add any extra suppression.  At about 94% duty cycle the noise on the power supply is about the following:

    gate resistor bypass capacitor peak-to-peak noise
     0Ω  none  20V
     1kΩ  none  3V
     0Ω  10µF  2.5V
     1kΩ  10µF  2.5V
     0Ω  470µF  1V
     1kΩ  470µF  0.3V

    The slew rate for the drain voltage with the 1kΩ gate resistor is about +7V/µs and -5V/µs.

  • Write a simple control loop for the fan speed, so that the fan speed can be held constant even when the power-supply voltage changes.  This may be an opportunity to try the P/PI/PID tuning, since the control loop should be fairly fast.

    I wrote a simple PID controller with the control variable being the fan PWM and the measured variable being the time per pulse (in µsec).  I tried tuning the controller by adjusting the proportional gain until the control loop barely oscillated, then cutting the gain to 0.45 of that and setting the integration time to about period of the oscillation (very loosely estimated).  I then tweaked the parameters until it seemed to give good control without oscillation over the full range of fan speeds.I tried the differential control, but the noisiness of the speed measurement (which I was not filtering at all) makes the derivative far too touchy, even with tiny amounts of differential control, so I used a simple PI controller instead.  I don’t think that the optimal parameters are the same at the high speed and low speed for the fan, but it was not difficult to find parameters that worked fairly well across the range.  One thing that help was not accumulating integral error when the PWM signal was pinned at the lowest or highest values.

    The speed is almost linear with the PWM input, so I would probably get better control if I used speed (the reciprocal of the pulse duration) as the measured value in the controller.

    The fan speed is nearly linear with PWM, which is ideal for proportional control.  But I had foolishly used the pulse duration as my measured value to control.

    The fan speed is nearly linear with PWM, which is ideal for proportional control, but I had foolishly used the pulse duration as my measured value to control.

    I rewrote the controller as a simple PI controller, using 16*RPM as my measured variable, so that I could have an integer setpoint with sufficient resolution. I’m still using floating-point in the controller for simplicity of coding but I plan to switch to fixed-point soon. This controller was fairly easy to tune—I made the Kplarge enough that system oscillated, and counted how many samples were in the period, then set the integration time to about the period. I then reduced Kp until the oscillations went away. I ended up with Kp = 0.01 PWM/16RPM and TI= 1/0.15 samples (with a sampling rate of 30ms, so TI=0.2s).

    One thing that helped was to make a guess at the target PWM setting when the setpoint was changed (using d RPM/ d PWM =24 and the current PWM setting and RPM value), then setting the cumulative error to what it would be in steady state at that PWM. I then set the PWM to five times as far from current PWM as the target PWM to make the transition as fast as possible without increasing overshoot, making sure to clip to the legal 0..255 range.

  • Write a simple control loop for controlling the temperature at the thermistor, by adjusting the PWM for the resistor.  This might get messy, as the fan speed probably affects the rate of transfer from the resistor to the thermistor (the thermistor is in the air stream blown over the resistor, not touching the resistor).

    When I started working on this, my power supply failed. I’m afraid it might have shorted when I was rewiring things (though I never saw evidence for a short). I’ll leave it overnight (in case there is a resettable poly fuse) and check it in the morning. If there is still no power, I’ll open the case and see if there is a replaceable fuse inside. I’m afraid that this may have a soldered-in non-resettable fuse, which would be a terrible design—setting me back a couple of weeks as I either order a replacement fuse or a replacement power supply.

    Correction: the power supply was fine—I’d managed to blow a circuit breaker for the room. I’m not sure how I did that, but resetting the circuit breaker fixed the problem. I now have a temperature control sort of working—I still have to tune the control loop, but I was able to get the thermistor to about 30°C (400 as the Arduino reading) and hold it to within about 0.3°C. There was a pretty substantial overshoot at the beginning, which I’ll have to look into controlling—the temperature controller may need to be critically damped. Now it really is time for me to get some sleep.

  • Put the whole thing into a styrofoam box, to see whether extra venting is needed to allow things to cool down, and to see how tightly temperature can be controlled.
  • Design and build baffling for the fan to get better airflow in the box.
  • Figure out how to get students to come up with workable designs, when they are starting from knowing nothing. I don’t want to give them my designs, but I want to help them find doable subproblems.  Some of the subproblems they come up with may be well beyond the skills that they can pick up in the time frame of the course.
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