Signal conditioners embodying advanced concepts in analog and digital electronic circuitry and software have been developed for use in data-acquisition systems that are required to be compact and lightweight, to utilize electric energy efficiently, and to operate with high reliability, high accuracy, and high power efficiency, without intervention by human technicians. These signal conditioners were originally intended for use aboard spacecraft. There are also numerous potential terrestrial uses — especially in the fields of aeronautics and medicine, wherein it is necessary to monitor critical functions.

Going beyond the usual analog and digital signal-processing functions of prior signal conditioners, the new signal conditioner performs the following additional functions:

  • It continuously diagnoses its own electronic circuitry, so that it can detect failures and repair itself (as described below) within seconds.
  • It continuously calibrates itself on the basis of a highly accurate and stable voltage reference, so that it can continue to generate accurate measurement data, even under extreme environmental conditions.
  • It repairs itself in the sense that it contains a microcontroller that reroutes signals among redundant components as needed to maintain the ability to perform accurate and stable measurements.
  • It detects deterioration of components, predicts future failures, and/or detects imminent failures by means of a real-time analysis in which, among other things, data on its present state are continuously compared with locally stored historical data.
  • It minimizes unnecessary consumption of electric energy.

The design architecture divides the signal conditioner into three main sections: an analog signal section, a digital module, and a power-management section. The design of the analog signal section does not follow the traditional approach of ensuring reliability through total redundancy of hardware: Instead, following an approach called "spare parts — tool box," the reliability of each component is assessed in terms of such considerations as risks of damage, mean times between failures, and the effects of certain failures on the performance of the signal conditioner as a whole system. Then, fewer or more spares are assigned for each affected component, pursuant to the results of this analysis, in order to obtain the required degree of reliability of the signal conditioner as a whole system.

The digital module comprises one or more processors and field-programmable gate arrays, the number of each depending on the results of the aforementioned analysis. The digital module provides redundant control, monitoring, and processing of several analog signals. It is designed to minimize unnecessary consumption of electric energy, including, when possible, going into a low-power "sleep" mode that is implemented in firmware. The digital module communicates with external equipment via a personal-computer serial port. The digital module monitors the "health" of the rest of the signal conditioner by processing defined measurements and/or trends. It automatically makes adjustments to respond to channel failures, compensate for effects of temperature, and maintain calibration.

This work was done by Angel Lucena and Jose Perotti of Kennedy Space Center, and Anthony Eckhoff and Pedro Medelius of Dynacs, Inc. For further information, access the Technical Support Package (TSP) free on-line at www.techbriefs.com/tsp under the Electronics/Computers category.

This invention is owned by NASA, and a patent application has been filed. Inquiries concerning nonexclusive or exclusive license for its commercial development should be addressed to the Technology Programs and Commercialization Office, Kennedy Space Center, (321) 867-8130. Refer to KSC-12301.


NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the March, 2004 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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