An instrument driver is a software application that can control a scientific instrument. Such drivers allow for remote configuration and control of instruments, including instruments still in development and testing that might not have reliable control systems yet. Instrument manufacturers produce drivers that they package with their products, and independent firms also make drivers for a variety of applications. Researchers can create their own if they are comfortable with programming languages and have very specific needs.
The instrument driver creates an easily controlled and familiar environment for the operator. He or she can configure the instrument and adjust the settings, command it to perform specific operations and record data through the driver. The level of control and complexity available can depend on the driver and the skills of the operator. Drivers can handle input in many programming languages and many are highly configurable.
Some use a protocol known as an interchangeable virtual instrument (IVI) driver. These drivers have tremendous capacity for control and modifications. Researchers and developers use this type of instrument driver in the development of new tools and the refinement of controls. Scientists working at the bench on specific projects can also use this type of instrument driver if they want more flexibility and control with a project.
Instrument drivers can allow operators to engage in very detailed and complex tasks. One benefit of drivers is the ability to automate. The operator can set instruments to perform particular functions at specific times or in response to triggering events. Automation can increase reliability and repeatability, as long as the instruments are properly calibrated and do what they are supposed to do in response to the driver. Errors in function can result in false or incomplete results.
Replacement drivers for many scientific instruments are available through manufacturer websites. It also is possible to order them directly from the manufacturer if they are not online, as might be the case with older drivers or manufacturers that don't have a significant web presence. In the installation process, the instrument driver might run through a series of test settings and operations. It is important for a user to pay attention to prompts on screen and follow directions carefully for safety and proper calibration.
A number of classes of instruments can be controlled through the use of an instrument driver. If a researcher is not sure about whether a piece of lab equipment can be remotely controlled, he or she can contact the manufacturer for information. The manufacturer can provide specific recommendations and advice and might have a compatible driver available.