Guy on Simulink

Simulink & Model-Based Design

Robotic Arm Models and Repairing Hubble

As you may know, Space Shuttle Atlantis is about to
return this weekend from man’s last visit to the Hubble Telescope.  Those
astronauts took some major risks to repair our favorite and most famous scientific
instrument.  One of the tools they used during space walks is the robotic
manipulator from the Canadian Space Agency (the robotic arm).

Image Source: Nasa - STS125 Hubble above the space shuttle Atlantis cargo bay

Image Credit: NASA

I have never had a chance to operate a CSA robotic arm,
but my colleague Guy Rouleau has!  Guy told me about a Simulink S-function he
created to help in controlling a robotic arm in Simulink.

Changing the color of blocks during simulation

By Guy Rouleau

Roboticist Guy Rouleau

I have many good memories from my internship at the
Canadian Space Agency when I was studying for my bachelor degree.  During this
internship, I was developing control logic for a robotic arm. Simulink was used
to develop the controllers and as a user interface to command the robot.

Using a joystick to control inputs to a Simulink model of a robotic arm.

When driving a robotic arm simulation using a joystick,
it is not always easy to visualize if you are close to a joint limit or a
singularity. It is possible to display the state values in the model, but hard
to know if you are about to lock out control of the arm.  To help the person
driving the robot, we though it might be cool to make blocks in the Simulink
diagram turn red when close to a limit.  This is what it looks like in action with
the SimMechanics mech_robot_vr.mdl model.

Animation of a virtual reality robotic arm with red and green displays to indicate joint state.

Here is a quick explanation of how to changing the color
of a block with a simple Level 2 M-file S-Function.

As a template, I suggest starting with the demo M-file msfcn_times_two.m.
In your MATLAB installation, you can open this file using the following

>> edit msfcn_times_two.m

Only a few modifications are required to make the file change
the color of a block based on the value of the signal connected to the

To begin, save the file as ChangeColor.m for
this example. At the minimum, you need to modify the code of the Output
section. To start, I created a model named “Test” where we will change the
color of the block named “Display”

Simulink test model to show the S-function working.

The simplest implementation can look at the input value, and
then use set_param to modify the block BackgroundColor:

Outputs code for the S-function

In the above code, the color of the block “Test/Display”
is set to green or red depending if the input is larger or smaller than zero.

In order to make the code reusable, I may want to determine
automatically which block is connected to the S-Function. We can also add a
parameter to the block to set the value at which the color switches. In that
case, we add these lines to the setup function:

Block setup code

Notice that the handle to the destination block is stored
in the “UserData” of the S-function. UserData is often useful for storing any
data you need to persist with the S-function, but doesn’t fit the definition of
a continuous or discrete state. The output function now looks like:

Block outputs using User Data to get the block handle

Finally, if you want the block to return to white at the
end of the simulation, you can add these lines to the terminate function:

Terminate function that sets the block back to white background.

You can find this example in my File Exchange Submission:
the color of a block while the simulation runs

Now it is your turn

Do you work on a robotic arm or on the Hubble?  Have you
used an S-function to customize what Simulink looks like?  Share your
experience and leave a comment

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