Performance Art and Automation Converge with EtherCAT |

Performance Art and Automation Converge with EtherCAT

March 092012
Performance Art and Automation Converge with EtherCAT
For well over a hundred years, performer flying sequences in film and live events have been a primary element in the director’s bag of tricks. However, since the entertainment industry thrives on continuous innovation in technology and artistry, leading edge special effects for performer flight are applied to advance modern creative work. To help elevate their clients’ productions to rave reviews, Las Vegas-based Flying by Foy specializes in sophisticated automation for performer flying effects with an emphasis on sophistication and style.
“Flying by Foy is driven first and foremost by the artistic side of the flying effects and our advanced automated equipment is designed to suit that vision,” remarked Matt Bevacqua, Technical Designer, Flying by Foy. “The creative intent of the production is our main focus so we regard automation technology as a tool of the artistic trade much in the same way a painter may regard a brush.”
During the past 60 years Flying by Foy has provided special effects for over 50 Broadway shows, live events for the Smithsonian Museum, the Olympics and more. More recently Flying by Foy has handled the flying effects for several large productions a year including events such as the Super Bowl, entertainment awards shows, movies, live entertainment on Royal Caribbean cruises and up to 300 local productions in community theaters and churches across the United States.
 “Our solutions separate us from our competitors because, while we create stunning flying effects, we make the equipment disappear behind the scenes as much as possible,” Bevacqua said. “Flying by Foy provides intuitive and easy to use controls so the operator can easily create dynamic and breathtaking flying performances without requiring knowledge of the automation’s inner workings.”
Engineering on-the-fly
Even though Flying by Foy technology is user-friendly, it’s by no means rudimentary. The company’s Pegasus Automation hardware and software have been at the forefront of automation technology for years. In mid-2008 Flying by Foy decided to launch a major upgrade of their Pegasus Automation control products to improve coordinated positioning and enhance the safety functionality.
“In contrast to a crane moving containers at a shipyard where the system is continuously trying to avoid swinging, for example, Flying by Foy uses dramatic swinging and dynamic motion to produce exciting flying effects,” Bevacqua said. “We design automated systems for flying effects that appear completely natural.” Free-form flying effects require considerable pendulum effects and significant swinging actions that can’t be easily duplicated by a gantry or a four point system with tight load control. The new motion control and automation system for Pegasus must take this into account and provide the ability to safely implement dynamic, interpolated motion profiles.
The previous generation of Pegasus Automation utilized a motion controller and inverter in one package. The drive had integrated intelligence and handled the positioning tasks and velocity control itself. “That worked fairly well, but we were limited by the legacy fieldbus infrastructure when communicating with the equipment,” Bevacqua explained. “This severely limited our applications since our systems often require multiple master controllers. It necessitated a level of coordination that was not possible with a standard fieldbus where you simply write to I/O or memory locations. We required a solution that would essentially allow us to write our own communication protocol.”
Automation takes to the air
The 3rd and most recent generation of the Pegasus Automation cable hoists currently include three main product lines, To improve communications capabilities, motion system performance and the safety infrastructure, all three Pegasus Automation cable hoists now utilize hardware, software and fieldbus technology from Beckhoff Automation. The first Flying by Foy product line is the DW-V3 performer flying winch, next is the IW-V winch that is built into a standard 12” box truss, a useful solution for rock & roll touring productions and for quick load-in requirements at arenas. Finally, the BR-X wireless control units are pods that can traverse wirelessly along I-beams and can lift and rotate to maneuver. Pegasus Automation Software acts as a traffic controller for all these equipment platforms which also feature a PS3, which is a 3-axis servo controller developed by Flying by Foy. Flying by Foy went from never having used Beckhoff to developing the wirelessly controlled BR-X system in just three months.
Pegasus Automation Software (left) acts as a "traffic controller" for all these equipment platforms while TwinCAT NC PTP from Beckhoff (right) is used to handle the automation and motion requirements.
The various Flying by Foy solutions include Beckhoff C6515 Industrial PCs (IPCs) with Intel® Celeron® M processor or CX9010s Embedded PCs with Intel® IXP420 with XScale® technology, TwinCAT NC PTP software and EtherCAT I/O Terminals with eXtreme Fast Control Technology (XFC).
Integrated into racks with the Pegasus PS3 motion controller, the heat dissipating C6515 IPCs take up two U rack units (3.5” high) each. “The C6515 form factor works extremely well for fitting inside the rack while allowing internal heat to ventilate harmlessly out of the rack,” Bevacqua said. “The C6515 enabled Flying by Foy to develop racks that were compact, but also extremely efficient at managing heat even when we had a number of them stacked up.” A typical implementation may have five or six racks all together so keeping the hardware well-ventilated is a must. Flying by Foy even used this rack-based system in summer 2010 in an outdoor production of Tarzan located in the desert in Ivins, Utah where it was routinely well over 100° F. “The C6525 system operated for five months in that environment and handled the demands exceptionally well without failures,” Bevacqua reported.
The C6515 IPC enabled Flying by Foy to develop racks that were compact, but also extremely efficient at managing heat even when a number of them are stacked up.
Alternatively, Flying by Foy uses the CX9010 for custom enclosures, custom cabinets and for applications that Flying by Foy has never implemented before. This Embedded PC allows Flying by Foy to implement functionality similar to the rack mount IPC system, just in a DIN rail mountable form factor. “Since TwinCAT is the software platform for all Beckhoff controllers, all we need to do is transfer our control software from one Beckhoff hardware type to the other,” Bevacqua explained. “Another benefit of using TwinCAT is that it allows us to write our own applications in the same Windows CE operating environment as many of our other system tools. We also take advantage of TwinCAT’s impressive adaptability, I/O linking features and motion function blocks.”
Alternatively, the CX9010 Embedded PC allows Flying by Foy to implement functionality similar to the rack mount IPC system, just in a DIN rail mountable form factor.
Flying by Foy programs the majority of their drivers and HMI using Microsoft Visual Studio. “We’re looking forward to working with the upcoming TwinCAT version 3 when Beckhoff integrates Visual Studio as an integrated option in their software platform,” Bevacqua said. “TwinCAT already gives us limitless flexibility to implement our own custom drivers into the Beckhoff system and adapt to constantly changing project requirements. Today we’re not locked into any specific hardware so we can easily change over time if needed. In our business this is very important because our application demands are always evolving and lead times are usually extremely short.”
EtherCAT: speaking language of entertainment engineering
For the Pegasus Automation System’s communication, Flying by Foy has transitioned to EtherCAT in a big way. “EtherCAT allows us to seamlessly communicate with nearly any available fieldbus,” Bevacqua explained. “With the EL6751 CANopen Master Terminal, for example, I have a fully functioning CANopen master that’s easily and cost-effectively implemented into my EtherCAT system. Even better, I can just as easily integrate other masters for PROFIBUS or DeviceNet, for example, to operate over EtherCAT if necessary.”
Flying by Foy also utilizes the EL6851 DMX master/slave terminal for lighting control and networking. “We have implemented DMX technology within Pegasus to trigger lighting events in coordination with flying effects,” Bevacqua said. “The fact that Beckhoff has high performance EtherCAT terminals for DMX, a must-have network in the entertainment industry, is yet another example of how versatile the system is. The ability to synchronize DMX lighting and motion control with one universal EtherCAT network greatly enhances our flexibility and streamlines the Pegasus Automation System.”
Flying by Foy also takes advantage of Safety over EtherCAT for ensuring operator and performer safety in the Pegasus system. “TwinSAFE has empowered us to cost-effectively incorporate safety PLC I/O terminals on the same fieldbus and with the same cabling as our motion control,” Bevacqua said. “TwinSAFE and TwinCAT can monitor the motion limits and all the safety-relevant subsystems for our full line of hoists. With EtherCAT, if I decide I need to add a safety gate or safety limit that wasn’t originally planned, all I need to do is add a distributed TwinSAFE Terminal and install an EL6900 Safety PLC Terminal back at the local control station. I have access to all safety data without an additional investment in full blown safety PLCs and an inefficient separate safety network. Transmitting safety data over the same bus as the motion eliminates unnecessary cable runs, improves reliability and allows Flying by Foy to implement more safety technology in more areas.”
Performance improvements and savings have nowhere to go but up
With the ability to achieve I/O response times < 100 μs, EL1262 and EL2262 XFC Terminals with oversampling from Beckhoff also play a role in the Pegasus Automation System. “In addition to the best-in-class communication speeds, XFC terminals are useful for replicating encoder signals for our motion systems,” Bevacqua said. “Pegasus is able to read in an encoder position at one winch and, using XFC terminals, replicate that high frequency signal at a local station with an accuracy of about 10 μs and a delay of about 1 ms. XFC Terminals help us replicate these signals without having to run dedicated control lines, which results in considerable wiring and cabling savings.”
 “With one standard Ethernet cable run, we can bring essentially any type of data from any point in the venue back to our local Pegasus controllers,” Bevacqua continued. “This simply wouldn’t be possible with any other networking method without a far more complicated wiring scheme and higher costs. With the EtherCAT bridge terminals, Flying by Foy can easily take I/O points from one system and transfer them over to another TwinCAT master so we can easily share motion axes with different masters.”
“Using Beckhoff controls, we’ve been able to keep costs low enough that we can implement one C6515 or CX9010 running TwinCAT for every three of our winches and every one of our PS3 units, maintaining cost effectiveness,” Bevacqua said. “With TwinCAT, we have a completely software-based motion control platform, which means significant savings since we must constantly retool and change our equipment to suit our clients’ wide range of artistic requirements.”
 “Perhaps the biggest benefit to Flying by Foy has been the technical support and we received from Beckhoff Automation during our development period for the new Pegasus Automation System,” Bevacqua stated. “The support staff is exceptionally knowledgeable and has always been there to provide rapid responses to our technical inquiries.”  
The Pegasus Automation System has been implemented in the field to cover over 100 axes of motion for entertainment applications.
The 3rd generation of the Pegasus Automation System is flying to a great start, having been placed in over 100 axes of motion in the field. However, the Pegasus technology advancement to bring artistic concepts to life is by no means finished. Matt Bevacqua’s upcoming plans for Flying by Foy include developments around the AX5000 EtherCAT servo drives from Beckhoff. “Incorporating the AX5000 drives will give us a comprehensive, high performance solution that unifies the Pegasus controls under one advanced architecture,” Bevacqua explained. “With Beckhoff as our technology partner, Flying by Foy will continue to cost-effectively deliver awe-inspiring automated effects that make creators’ and directors’ visions a reality – while ultimately, and most importantly, capturing the imaginations of their audiences.”
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