The Racecar Geek: Selecting the Data Acquisition Hardware

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Welcome back to another instalment of my column on all things motorsport electronics related. Last time we covered a basic introduction to Data Acquisition and put down a good foundational understanding as to what data acquisition is and what you should be looking for as a starting point (if you missed it, you can read it again here). This time I thought we would take a look at the types of Data Acquisition Systems (DAS) available today and what they offer – all from free applications you can run on a smart phone to the top end solutions used in professional racing today. As the offerings for DAS is constantly expanding and changing, I will not give a full view on what is available, but rather give you some food for though to help you select the type of system you might want. If you are keen to know more or have any direct questions, then I am more than happy to assist you. I will also put up a DAS Comparison chart on the web site which I will try to keep up-to-date moving forward to help you out!

As mentioned in my last article, we are looking at Data Acquisition Systems that record data received from a collection of sensors onto some type of memory storage which can be accessed after the event to retrieve the data for analysis. Whilst many of the DAS solutions today do have optional displays, these are installed in the car and to give real-time reference values to the driver. We are not discussing telemetry, which is the ability to transmit the data in real time to a remote location for analysis whilst the vehicle is in motion. This is an interesting topic and worth investigating further in the future, but is not part of our current discussions.

Technology today is advancing at an extremely fast pace (rather appropriate for people who want to drive fast on a racing track, don’t you think!), which is both good and bad for us when it comes to deciding on what DAS we want to use and where to put our hard-earned cash. And whilst part of this might come down to selecting a brand you might know or trust, I would suggest you decide what your desired use of the system is first, and to give you some assistance here is my point of view on the subject – there are many options available and a large number of categories, so I have broken it down into the following four.

1: I want to know how fast my lap time is with no (or minimum) analysis

This is the starting point in our search for DAS related hardware and for most can be relatively free as well. A great example here is some of the more popular smart-phone applications that are available like RaceChrono (www.racechrono.com), which has been developed here in Finland and is used with great success by many track day and professional drivers.

The great thing with this option is that the barrier to entry is extremely low – as long as you have a smart phone, you are set to go in most cases. But the extensibility and support for advanced analytics is currently restricted. RaceChrono does have support to link to a Bluetooth OBD reader connected to the car, but the channels that can be recorded are limited and restricted depending on car manufacturer. This therefore leaves you quite limited on what you can record for future analysis. But this is a moving target and I am sure we will see some great development in this space moving forward. Some other smart phone applications available are:

2: I want to record a video with some (or no) data to share with friends on YouTube

Video has become a norm in our life, we have video recording capability on our phones and simple HD Action camera systems can be purchased for not much money. And here we are spoilt for choice with the likes of GoPro, Contour, ION, and many more.

Several of the action cameras now available will record some level of data along with the video, such as speed and altitude, but this gives limited scope for driver and vehicle analysis, where we want to record channels associated with the chassis and engine as well.

Software is available to synchronise the video with data recorded using some DAS hardware, so with a small budget and some spare time it is possible to use an entry level DAS solution such as a smart phone application and an action camera to generate some good video with additional data points.

But we will not cover much more on this, as our focus at the moment is on DAS more than video. Maybe we can cover video in a future article.

3: I want to analyse my driving and car configuration

This is where we take the first step from entry level to dedicated DAS hardware, which has been developed for recording all three fundamental areas of data acquisition in a racing car; Engine, Chassis and Driver Input (as discussed in more detail in my last article). And here we find solutions from high end offerings used in professional racing like RaceLogic, Pi Research (not to be confused with the Raspberry Pi), MoTeC, Race Technology and others. These are DAS systems developed and built for one use only – data acquisition! These systems have also been designed and tested to run (reliably) in a hostile environment, such as in a racing car. They also come with advanced data analysis software which is one of the key elements of any DAS solution.

The real power of a DAS is not only in getting relevant data to review your driving and improve your lap times, it is also in starting to understand how your car is behaving and how changes in driving style and configuration effect the car. As a human we can at time lie to ourselves, not intentionally, but your brain does not always record the true facts – you might think you drove a section flat-out, but when you review the data you will see that you did lift the throttle momentarily, and what impact that had to the handling of the car. Another fact is the speed at which we can as humans record data points and remember them – try as you will, there is no way you can record the same number of data points as a computer and recall them after a race for analysis. We can use this vast amount of recorded data and the ability to do advanced comparisons to see how alterations to the suspension for instance is effecting the car, and gain insight into how to best set-up the car for a given circuit and conditions.

But the core fact is that we race to win and you can not win if you do not finish the race! Mechanical or electrical failure is something most have experienced, and would prefer to avoid in the future. This is where we can again call on the service of our trusted DAS and the plethora of sensors we have connected to the digital and analogue channels (we will cover the different channel types and related sensors in a future article, as well as more advanced items such as maths channels) along with the analysis software to help us predict and identify early warning signs of pending failure. As an example, if we see that the engine speed in relationship to wheel speed is starting to deviate from past patterns we could be starting to see the early signs of clutch failure.

4: I want to analyse my driving and car configuration with integrated video

This is what I see as the top-end DAS category. A DAS system with video integrated out-off-the-box. Integrated video and data is becoming increasingly popular in all areas, from trackday enthusiasts who want to learn how to improve their lap times, to professional racing drivers and teams wanting to find the last few hundredths of a second per corner or compare the effects of different suspension settings. Tightly synced video with forward and driver facing cameras allow users a wealth of visual information to make data analysis both easy and fast.

When it comes to video and DAS, I always end up in a long discussion with people. More and more of the main DAS solutions are starting to come with a HD video option, but at a high cost and at times with negative impact on other data recording features. My view is that as long as the HD option is still substantially more expensive than the alternatives I would not recommend one (unless you just want to spend more of your hard earned cash), for the following reasons:

  • The main use of the video is to have an additional channel to assist in analysis. Using the video you can see what is happening round the car whilst assessing the recorded data. This gives another dimension to understanding the data points in the results. Whilst the video with the data overlay makes for a nice thing to share with friends and fans, it is not the core reason for having it. Current cost of a DAS with HD video is still more expansive than a DAS without HD video and a good HD action camera!
  • HD video takes up a substantially larger amount of storage space. I confess that memory is getting cheaper by the day, but as memory capacity on hard drives and SD cards is increasing, a lot of the DAS hardware has a limit to the size of memory that can be used. As such a system with HD video will record over a shorter duration of time requiring you to either download the data more frequently from the DAS or exchange the storage media more frequently.

It is probably worth pointing out that when we talk about Data Acquisition Systems, we are mostly focused on the last two in the above list. Now, if you decide that your need sits in option 1 or 2, then you are all set to go. All that remains is to select your tools and head for the closest racing circuit. But if you are keen to get a more dedicated DAS system to both improve your lap times and do predictive analysis of your car, then we still have some more things to talk about.

Extensibility and accessories

Most DAS solutions are developed to be extended and upgraded as you grow with the car and need for additional analysis. Accessories allow you to make the most of the DAS system in your car, and the different systems out there have a large amount of options available. But they are all a bit different and depending on your need will be appropriate to you or not. At the basic level, this includes things like mounts, cable systems etc. You should also look at the more complex options such as sensor support and the number of channels available. Most systems are supplied with a limited number of channels which can be extended as an upgrade option at a cost. More modern cars use the CAN Bus protocol initially developed by Bosh in the early 80’s, so depending on your car you will want to look for a system which support the CAN Bus protocol or not.

Storage media

This might at first feel like a simple point and not worth discussions, but the current DAS solutions available on the market use a number of different storage media technologies. Some of these technologies are more extendable and future proofed than others. This is a good thing to keep in mind if you are looking to get a used DAS. I personally use the RaceLogic Vbox Lite with SD cards, but in recent months have been considering changing to an external solid state hard drive.

Support and community

After sale technical support and an active user community is an important thing to consider when looking at a DAS. You do not want to spend a lot of money on a nice solution only to find that you can not get support in setting it up or when things go wrong. Remember that purchasing the DAS is only the start, you also need to install it and wire up all the sensors as well as set-up the channels  to record the data you want to analyse at a later date. This is not at times a simple task, and having easy access to people who can advice and support is imperative to making your new DAS solution work as you want.

What is out there

Whilst This is not an exhausted list, here are some of the main DAS systems available.

What next

That was all for this time, in the next instalment we will take a look at data channels and sensors in regards to your DAS.

If you have any questions related to the article or would like to request a subject to be covered in a future article then please drop me a line at racecargeek@coolcavaracing.com

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