How Serial control is used in particle physics

CERN needed to manage a serially-controlled device remotely via the network. 

The research team found its solution at Brainboxes.  

Brainboxes founder Eamonn Walsh explains more:


There can be few people who haven’t heard of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) – the 27-kilometre tunnel lying under Switzerland and France. Built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) it confirmed, in 2012, the existence of the fabled and elusive Higgs boson – refered to by laymen as the ‘God particle’ that gives all matter its mass. The Higgs boson has been described as “the last missing piece of our current understanding of the most fundamental nature of the universe.”


Not so many people are aware, however, that the LHC was built to enable the study of particle physics, the study of the fundamental constituents of matter and the forces of nature. It is, perhaps, the leading edge of scientific research – certainly in the field of physics. And because it’s at the leading edge of research, off-the-shelf tools, instrumentation and so on don’t exist. They have to be designed and built by the scientists doing the research.


A case in point is a team at Cornell University in the United States – one of the world’s most respected academic institutions with a focus on research designed to change the world for the better. Cornell has been collaborating with CERN, and a team at the university is performing a test on some novel instrumentation developed by the Beam Instrumentation Group at CERN for particle beam diagnostics. The test, which is taking place at Cornell – the university has an electron accelerator – employs an optical imaging system that picks up the light produced by the electron beam as it passes through a narrow (0.5 mm) slit. The system features among its capabilities some linear motors that move optical elements such as lenses.


However, the research has at its heart a circulating electron beam – and the beam gives off radiation. That presents a challenge for controlling elements of the test, such as the movement of lenses, as the scientists cannot be located in the same room – so, in the past, it was remotely controlled via a computer located in an underground radiation-proof room adjacent to the accelerator tunnel. The situation was less than ideal, because it meant that the research team was split between those in the control room, and those in the physically remote test control room.


The ideal solution was to enable control of the test from the control room itself, allowing the whole research team to follow the measurements. CERN unearthed the solution at Brainboxes, one of the leading serial communication device developers and manufacturers in the world and with a mission to enable customers to connect, configure and control their serial devices. With headquarters in Liverpool, UK, it has a team of highly qualified software and hardware designers, and an in-house volume manufacturing facility and a global distribution chain. Substantial investments in R&D and manufacturing have gained the company a reputation for products that are easy to use, highly configurable and extremely reliable.


CERN selected Brainboxes’ ES-701 4-port RS232 Ethernet to Serial Adapter, which is designed to provide a simple, high performance way of connecting serial devices to the network. Serial ports can be configured using any browser either via the LAN or via the Internet, allowing for truly remote control of the device which can be accessed not only via a PC, but also via an Android phone or tablet. It comes with a lifetime warranty.


The Brainboxes ES-701 controls three motors from US company Zaber – but now, that control is possible from the control room, located remotely from the instrumentation, allowing the research crew to work more collaboratively.


“We no longer need some of the team to be physically located close to the instrumentation,” said Dr Stefano Mazzoni working within CERN’s Beam Instrumentation Group. “The Brainboxes solution – enabling serial devices to be attached to the network so that they can be controlled from any other asset on the network - means that we can now remotely control the image acquisition system and the positioning of mirrors and lenses. That enables us, for example, to acquire images while moving an element of the instrument, and has greatly simplified our operations and the acquisition of the data we need.”


The Brainboxes ES-701 has lived up to the Cornell team’s expectations in terms of performance, configurability and reliability – and its impact on the way the team works. Dr Mazzoni also speaks highly of the support he received from Brainboxes.


“I’ve only had the need to contact Brainboxes on one occasion,” he said, “but the answer I got back from their support people was both precise and timely. As such, my experience has been very positive.”


While not every prospective user of the ES-701 from Brainboxes will be trying to avoid radioactive contamination, its ability to reliably and flexibly enable remote control of serial devices via the network has once again been put to the test – a test it passed with flying colours. 


All images kindly supplied by © CERN

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