Making laboratory experiments remotely accessible

Alexander Kalashnikov, Hongwei Zhang, Jo Jennings and
Misko Adramriuk
Sheffield Hallam University

Conducting laboratory experiments is an essential part of the educational process in engineering, scientific and technological fields. Existing space, costs and staffing constraints usually result in students conducting the experiment in groups rather than on their own, sometimes before the underlying theory was presented at the lectures, and quite limited lab access time and difficulty rescheduling replacement or catch up sessions. Many laboratory experiments require preliminary safety inspection of the setup and sometimes even supervision which may impact throughout by qualified staff due to the associated dangers. These experiments are commonly “lightened” in order to ensure that the equipment stays well within its safe operating limits, but also reducing the scope for free hand exploration.

On the other hand, software simulators are safe, accessible from almost any computer at any time, and run unattended. Unfortunately, they cannot provide real hands on experience.

Our goal is to combine the safety and accessibility of software simulators with real laboratory equipment by providing online video feed of lab equipment controlled remotely over the Internet. This development is based on the previously completed project (http://ak2015.uk/b/) and is supported by the teaching enhancement fund (funding will be used to build the setup using newer components and reward the student volunteers with vouchers for testing the system and commenting on their experience).

The project employs single board computer (SBC) Raspberry Pi 3 acting as the Internet web server which supplies the video feed and provides the remote user with the interface to control the relevant lab equipment. When the user alters any controls, the SBC adjust settings for the laboratory equipment accordingly so that the user can observe the effects of the change in real time. As the setup is pre-assembled and unsafe values are blocked by the SBC, the setup can run safely unattended.