The Story of Phoenix
June 28, 2008
When you conduct experiments in modern Physics, the equipment involved is often huge and complicated, which is beyond a human being’s ability to control. Also, precise measurement of time and fast and continuous measurement of physical quantities are often required. Consequently, such experiments are automated, and computer interfaced. This means that the scientist carries out the experiment by controlling the equipment using a computer.
Carrying out an experiment consists of different steps. The first step is to activate the equipment, that is, to start the physical phenomenon which is to be studied. For example, in a simple pendulum experiment, this step would be to set the pendulum in motion. Once the physical system is active, we record the observations. This is the second step – data acquisition. And the final step is the analysis of the data obtained. Computers are unique in that they can be used for all these three steps, with the appropriate peripheral equipment.
When a student who has completed her post graduate studies in Physics starts doing research, she inevitably has to carry out computer interfaced experiments. But we do not get such exposure in our education system, even at the post graduate level. As a result, it is likely that the student would find herself in highly unfamiliar territory. Of course, the research facility would provide a friendly interface and adequate help to the student to complete her experiment successfully, but chances are that the student might not have developed a feel for the whole procedure. This affects the quality of research.
So what is the way out? The obvious solution is to introduce computer interfaced experiments right at the undergraduate or even high school level. One of the main obstacles is the cost involved. Though computers have become inexpensive, commercially available data acquisition hardware is too expensive to be affordable for college labs, where teaching/learning and not research, is the main objective. Thus the idea of building a low cost data acquisition hardware, and subsequently “Physics with Home-made Equipment and Innovative Experiments” (Phoenix), evolved. Phoenix is a big step in the right direction. It is easily affordable for colleges and can be interfaced with personal computers through 100% free and open source software.
The Early Days
The first version of Phoenix was completed around September 2004. It communicated with the computer through the parallel port interface, and depended entirely on the computer CPU for control. Time measurements were done using the CPU clock itself, using real time operating system features. The device driver took care of all the control and measurements. It was first implemented using DOS, and later using real time linux.
The first Phoenix workshop was held on 11 November 2004 at the University of Calicut, Kerala. The first workshop hosted by IUAC was conducted from the 3rd to 14th of October 2005. Many such workshops have been held since. Physics teachers from all parts of the country have taken part in these programs. More such workshops will be conducted in the future. You can find a complete list of the Phoenix workshops conducted so far, as well as announcements regarding future workshops athttp://iuac.res.in/~elab/phoenix/workshops/index.html.
Thus the parallel port version kicked off the Phoenix activities. As it later became completely based on free and open source software (FOSS), it attracted interest from the FOSS community, most notably from Pramode C E, who continues to be an active developer/promoter of Phoenix. As a result, demonstrations of Phoenix have since been held at some of the prominent FOSS events like FOSS.IN, FOSSMeet@NITC etc.
Need for a Simpler Hardware/Interface
But the parallel port version was never going to be viable in the long run. For one thing, it was bulky. More importantly, for using it on a computer, you had to compile the device driver with the kernel. This would have been too difficult a task for the end user. As a result, it was not very portable, in the sense that you could not just plug Phoenix in and start using it. Some amount of expertise in programing was required for installing the Phoenix driver. It is still a valuable tool for students for learning how to write device drivers, though.
This led to a complete redesign of Phoenix in early 2006. The new design was based on the Atmel ATMega16 microcontroller, which shifted the control tasks from the real time kernel, to the firmware (written in C and compiled using the AVR-GCC cross compiler) running on the microcontroller. This made things a lot simpler. Now once you burnt the firmware onto the microcontroller flash memory, all you needed was a code library to communicate with it from the PC (through the RS232 serial port interface). No more complicated device drivers! Also, this made the hardware schematic simpler and easier to debug. The new version of Phoenix was named the Phoenix-Mini, or Phoenix-M for short. It was also much more compact (13cm x 10.5cm x 2.5 xm) and cheaper (it costs only around Rs.1500) than its predecessor.
Ready for the Market!
Phoenix-M was ready by the end of May 2006, and started being produced commercially by three different vendors in different parts of India. You can find information about these vendors at http://iuac.res.in/~elab/phoenix/vendor.html. Since the cost of research and development is funded by the IUAC and the schematics are made freely available, the vendors are able to provide the hardware at a low price, based on the cost of raw material and the labour involved.
Phoenix Live CD
By this time, workshops were being held in different parts of the country, and the need for a portable suite of the Phoenix software libraries arose. This resulted in the development of the Phoenix Live CD, which is a complete customized GNU/Linux operating system (based on the Slax live CD) which you can boot from the CD without needing to install anything to the hard disk. It contains, apart from all the software needed to use Phoenix, a collection of free and open source scientific/educational software tools. You can download the Phoenix live CD from http://iuac.res.in/~elab/livecd_images/index.html. A new version based on Debian GNU/Linux is also being developed.
Laptop computers have become popular, and many of them do not provide the RS232 interface. So, a new USB version of Phoenix-M was developed in late 2007. It communicates with the computer, using a USB to RS232 converter implemented by firmware running on a dedicated on-board controller. Apart from this, the Phoenix Microcontroller Development Kit (PMDK) has also been developed to provide a low cost, easy to use microcontroller development system, mainly for engineering students and electronics enthusiasts. Several add-on boards have also been designed for use with PMDK. This modular structure is useful for application in the projects of engineering students.
Future Direction and Challenges
The Phoenix project has matured since its beginning in 2004. We now have a reliable, cost-effective product which is ready for mass deployment. Some academic institutions have already started using Phoenix. For example, the West Bengal University of Technology(WBUT) has included it in their refresher course for Physics teachers. The Department of Education, Kerala, has initiated a project to use Phoenix as a tool for IT enabled education at the high school level.
But there are many challenges that lie ahead, before Phoenix can become a regular part of the curriculum. First of all, computer interfacing of scientific experiments is an entirely new concept, to most of the Physics teachers and students in India. This hurdle can be overcome only through a series of Phoenix workshops. But for its effect to be far-reaching, we need to build a community of enthusiasts from different parts of the country, who can help in conducting workshops. Only with a stong community and user base, can we be assured that Phoenix will realize its potential to revolutionize science education in our country.
1. A Report on Phoenix, by B.P. Ajith Kumar.
2. Experimental Physics with Phoenix and Python, by Pramode.C.E
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