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Past Project in Detail

Excel Technology Group - Variable Message Sign and Hand-Held Controller


LtoR: G. Willett (CEED), P.Higgins (ETG), Patrick Hamilton (student), J.Edwards (QUT).  

Variable Message Sign and Hand-Held Controller – Excel Technology Group (Electrical Engineering student)

Excel Technology Group (ETG) are a Brisbane based, Australian company established in 1989 which focus on the design, development and manufacture of traffic and public transport management technologies, including pedestrian and vehicle detectors, roadside displays and traffic controllers.

Paul Higgins of ETG identified a project involving the design iteration of ETG’s electronic display signs, known as Variable Message Signs (VMS). These signs provide advisory information to motorists in an attempt to improve travel times through informed decision-making. You’ll see VMS on the side of roads and motorways, warning motorists of changing traffic conditions, such as roadwork, road closures, accidents, etc and also to display road safety messages such as “Speed Kills” and “Rest, Revive, Survive”.

ETG has developed an alpha-numeric VMS that has been used extensively for several years. This system consists of a number of display boards mounted side by side to form a line (or number of lines). Each panel is instructed, by a handheld controller, to display a single character, so that the panels collectively display a message across the line.

The handheld controller is equipped with an LCD screen and a SanDisk (Compact Flash disk). Various buttons on the controller allow the user to scroll through messages stored on the SanDisk and select an appropriate message for display. Display brightness is also adjusted via the handheld controller.

Patrick Hamilton, QUT Electrical Engineering student, enthusiastically took up the challenge to convert the alpha-numeric package into a graphical package, to provide a more flexible message system. Patrick identified a number of project objectives:

· Display Board – convert the 5x7 alpha-numeric board into a 6x8 graphical display board.

· Handheld Controller – update the user interface (to be more user-friendly), add a graphical LCD screen and produce a cover for the controller, including new buttons and layout.

· PC Software – write a Windows program to aid in the creation of graphical VMS message files. As this could be a whole project in itself, Patrick’s objective was to lay the foundation for future work in this area.

· Documentation – develop User Manuals and Detailed Design Reports for each component.

This project was an opportunity for Patrick to be involved in both software and hardware design and he commented that he “enjoyed the challenge of managing both.”

At the completion of his project, Patrick was able to build and demonstrate a 5x7 board, which could display various graphical messages (see photo). His update of the handheld controller had been successfully designed, loaded and tested. This included extra functionality added to the firmware and the graphic LCD was integrated with the handheld controller. A plastic case used for previous models of the controller was cut to fit the new PCB and LCD, and the existing cover with switches was also modified to fit the new controller.

He also designed a new fan controller, to sense the internal and external temperature, thus preventing condensation on the inside of the sign. The fan is activated only when needed, to save power and reduce maintenance requirements.

Patrick also wrote a basic PC software program, which provides a (limited features) means to create VMS message files. His software will be very useful for a future CEED student, when developing the final program.

Paul Higgins commented that he was “impressed with Patrick’s systematic engineering process and his ability to interpret the evolving results from work in progress, which allowed him to make several analytical judgements that added features and made provision for later work that may be conducted to improve the operation of the display”. Well done, Patrick.

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