THE DEVELOPMENT OF A REMOTE LABORATORY FOR DISTANCE LEARNING AT LOUGHBOROUGH UNIVERSITY

S. Williams, R. Blanchard, A. Mohammed, M. Bliss, R. Pancholi, M. Clowes

Loughborough University (UNITED KINGDOM)
Currently, there are several research and development projects being undertaken by various institutions to incorporate remote laboratories within their distance learning programmes. This increase drive for the development of remote laboratories to replace virtual laboratories have been fuelled by the rapid advances in Internet communication services over the last few years, allowing for the opportunity to remotely control physical apparatus at distance. This paper reviews some of the different approaches to date and presents the remote laboratory development project undertaken by the distance learning program at Centre for Renewable Energy Systems Technologies (CREST) at Loughborough University.

The aim of the project was to develop a replica of a physical laboratory used in the full-time Master of Science in Renewable Energy Systems Technology for distance learners. The laboratory exercise is part of the overall assessment for the particular module. Currently, the distance learners use the computer simulations version of the laboratories which were developed over 10 years ago when the distance learning version of the course began.

With the remote laboratory users will be able to access and remotely control the experimental equipment based at Loughborough University via the Internet. The purpose of the experiment is to investigate the effects of temperature and Irradiance (intensity of the light source) on different Photovoltaics (PV) panels using the characteristic measurement called the IV curve. The project was divided into three main sub-systems:
1. Booking time-slot and remote accessing – Labview Software
2. Student interface and control – Labview Software
3. Hardware construction and configuration –Various Equipment

LabVIEW software was used for the student control interface, the control of the hardware and the required PV panel measurements. The hardware includes a LED lighting system, heating/cooling system for the PV panel and a movable base for switching between intensity measurement sensors and the PV panel.
The PV Remote Laboratory allows distance learners to use the bespoke and purpose designed booking system to select a time to do the experiment. They will then log onto the experiment through the student graphical user interface. With the aid of a webcam the students can see the experimental rig in action. Students can then follow a series of instructions to set and measure irradiance levels from the LED light source, control the temperature of the PV panels, change the PV panels on a turntable, and take IV characteristics curves for the different conditions. They can then download their results to critically analyse and discuss them in a laboratory report according to the coursework instructions.
This paper details the systematic approach used in the development of the PV Remote Laboratory highlighting challenges and successes.